Thorpe’s (Incompetence, 2015) vivid, impressionistic novel about a Westerner’s strange travels around Mali.
Hank Westland, an American convert to Islam, lives a dissolute life in Bamako, Mali, getting drunk every night and bedding a procession of African women. But his mind is elsewhere, far away; in Timbuktu, his friend professor Kati has been accused of sorcery by a Tuareg extremist militant group called Ansar Dine, and he’s being held in a captivity that he may not survive. Westland wants to travel to save his friend, but first he must go see Al Hajj Tidjani, the leader of the Umarian Tidjanniya order that the American has recently joined as a new convert. He arrives at the compound and greets the wily, enigmatic leader, his wives, and their various daughters; their worldview, inspired by idiosyncratic readings of the Quran and the Hadith, quickly begins to challenge his complacency on a variety of issues. As a Christian minister’s son, he’d spent years teaching at a college in the Pacific Northwest, a laid-back, easygoing area where “a bumper-sticker often seen around town read, ‘Mean People Suck.’ ” By contrast, Westland reflects about West Africa, “You lived here in one day more than most people did in twenty years in the U.S.” His experiences in the camp reel wildly from his usual priapism to steep discussions of various Islamic subjects; an in-camp circumcision scene, though, may have every male reader reflexively wincing. Thorpe’s narrative is lushly sensuous, wonderfully capturing the textures and contradictions of Muslim life in Mali and also offering thought-provoking digressions into the nature of Islam (“The true hajj does not mean traveling to Mecca,” Westland learns at one point, for example. “The true hajj is the hajj to the point of mercy at the very center of your spiritual being”). The result is a somewhat jumbled but instantly memorable novel in the spirit of Paul Bowles’ work.
A raw, sensual odyssey of sex and faith in chaotic, alluring modern-day West Africa.