A few hundred years ago in Mombasa, in a village off the coast of Africa, lives fifteen-year-old Bayu El-Mudi, son of Safwana Ibrahim El-Mudi, henceforth respectfully referred to for purposes of brevity simply as Bayu. Islam is something of a new kid on the block, so although Bayu is a devout Muslim, his worldview is partly built on the tribal tales of his ancestors, pagan beliefs that are "like the glowing embers of a fire that will never die out among us" (advance uncorrected proof, p. 5). Gifted member of a respected clan of wood sculptors though Bayu is, he shares with most teenagers an ego that bruises like a peach, so there's no way he's going to ignore his fiancée Hasmahani's disparaging observation that he is still just a boy. Unfortunately for Bayu, a member of the El-Mudi clan faces a particularly arduous challenge if he wants to establish his manhood; in a ritual mandated eight generations ago by the clan's founder, each young male must make the solitary, perilous journey to the distant peak of Mount Meru, there to dream three dreams before returning. The clan elders are reticent about revealing the exact purpose of this endeavor, and given that plenty of stronger, more experienced young clan members have never made it back from the trek, it's with understandable trepidation that Bayu leaves Mombasa for Africa's untamed, pagan-infested interior. Hostile terrain and intertribal warfare present difficulties enough, but Bayu must also contend with the spirit world: shadowy fields of bamboo shoots cacophonous with the hooting and wailing of genies, warlocks in the guise of ferocious beasts, and the enigmatic figure of the leopard, a key figure in the most important of the El-Mudi clan's mythology, a creature with an unsettling tendency to crop up, Cheshire cat-like, in Bayu's waking world, his equally significant dream life, and the mysterious realm between the two into which Bayu's journey eventually takes him. The leopard's agenda is unclear, but Bayu begins to realise he must somehow fathom the nature of his relationship with this animal—if animal it is—before his quest is complete.
As an exploration of the natural history and anthropology of its setting and an amalgamation of fables and moments, Three Dreams on Mount Meru is often a delight, routinely evoking a sense of wonder, magic, and mystery. As the story of a boy's journey into manhood, it is functional but less successful.
First, the good stuff, of which there is plenty. As a student and explorer of various parts of Africa, Devenne is equipped with both the knowledge and the experience necessary to create a strong setting for his novel, and he does this from the outset with an infectious enthusiasm. From the small rock pool where Bayu finds an oyster to the giant peak of Mount Meru, Devenne's African wilderness is alive and vibrant, all the more so because we see it through Bayu's eyes. Granted the loan of his perceptions and sensibilities, born as they are of a radically different culture, we experience a double shock of the new, seeing Mount Meru "dozing in a bed of clouds" (p. 61) and flat-topped acacia trees that "look as if some giant had leveled them off with his hand" (p. 39).
This enthusiasm extends to the oral tradition of the story's place and era. In fact, Bayu (the narrator of his own saga) seemingly champions the superiority of the spoken word over his written narrative in the opening paragraph, in which he admits with embarrassment to comparing himself favorably to Mombasa's best storyteller: "Of course, I'm guilty of pride to think that, especially since I write my words out with a pen, whereas his were spoken" (p. 1).
Woven into the text are numerous parables and fables based in the oral tradition Bayu here alludes to, some of which are stories from Bayu's internal library, wherein are stored the tales he has devoured all his short life, others of which are told by those he meets as he travels. If these mini-short stories occasionally lack obvious relevance (perhaps sometimes dropped in simply because Bayu, or Devenne, rather enjoys telling them), they always add color to an already bright tapestry.
However, the sum of the novel is not quite the total of its parts. Ironically, this is partially because Devenne is so adept at depicting other lands and customs that he overshadows his main character. Whilst immersed in the details of the latest culture Bayu has encountered or the latest fable he is hearing, our interest in his quest, which remains nebulous, cools. This is not helped by the fact that we're told, rather than shown, that Bayu is growing from a boy to a man. There is in fact little sense that he's climbing any kind of character-development arc, and thus we might say that for a coming-of-age story, Three Dreams on Mount Meru makes an excellent travelogue or natural history exposition. I could add that the dialogue between characters is stiff in places (a malaise the narrative voice that speaks to the reader rarely suffers from), but let it be duly noted that this book is a translation from the French, by Lauren Yoder.
So the novel excels in places and struggles in others. I'm going to recommend it anyway, because where it works it works very well and the weaker parts thankfully don't constitute enough ballast to weigh it down. Here's looking forward to what Devenne produces when he's smoothed out the rough.
Finn Dempster writes book and film reviews for varous ezines and his local press. By a happy coincidence, his main hobbies are book and film. He's occasionally to be found in gainful employment as a business administrator but will shortly be taking a welcome if expensive break from this amidst the groves of academia.
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