This reissue of a long-out-of-print novella by the stylistically significant British novelist evokes the tension between the sensual and the spiritual with uncharacteristic simplicity. Highly regarded for his influence on such writers as Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley, and Anthony Powell, Firbank (Complete Short Stories, 1990) was noted for his ``mannered'' satire of English society, but this depiction of a young boy's religious quest reveals a more serious writer. In lapidary, luminous prose Firbank evokes a sun-drenched North African landscape, transcendentally beautiful at dawn and dusk, a place of walled gardens and towns with balconies that overhang the merchants' stalls. In one such town, the young orphan Cherif lives with an aunt and uncle. A tender-hearted boy who cannot bear to watch the butcher kill a lamb, or his uncle the live chickens he hawks door-to-door, Cherif, a devout Muslim, is consumed with spiritual longings. He reads the Koran and prays each day at a mosque: ``Gazing up in the vast cupola of blue-mother-of-pearl he would be transported to Allah in the realms of beauty and bliss.'' Cherif also is intensely sensitive to nature and, resting in a beautiful garden where the ``drone of bees filled the air with harmony,'' thinks what ecstasy it would be to see the world. But his spiritual longings are intensified by his boredom with his banal home life and by an encounter with an old marabout, who tells him of a ``hermit dwelling in the high hills across the plains, thought by some even to be the Prophet himself.'' Cherif sets out in search of the hermit and soon comes into a country that is increasingly desolate. Tired and thirsty, he despairs, but after reading the Koran prays that Allah ``show compassion.'' An exquisite miniature.
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