For Women in Translation Month, I read the Man Booker International 2019 winner Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi, translated by Marilyn Booth. As Alharthi was the first Omani woman translated into English, and the first Arab author to win the award, my expectations were high. I wasn’t disappointed. These “women of the moon” (its original title) quietly grabbed me and allowed me to see their otherwise closed world.
“Marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home.” (156)
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera explores the philosophical position of the eternal return: the theory that we are fated to continue living the lives and follow the paths that have been predetermined for us. Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies plays with this idea also. Her metaphor is that of the planets and the never ending orbit that her characters are on not to make the mistakes of their genealogical and hereditary past. When you are born into a particular orbit how can you form your own path: how can you break with the tradition of generations?
Although a family tree is included at the beginning of the book, it is very difficult to hold on to the different characters and their lives as the book moves through their stories. But this doesn’t really seem to matter. To some extent, their stories become a web of similar issues regardless of which generation they come from and whether they are male or female. All are guided by the celestial bodies and breaking away from their orbit is challenging if not impossible.
Booth’s translation is extremely poetic, capturing the verse like quality of the poetic Arabic tradition. I found myself getting lost in the language, often stopping to write out a quotation or to reread a passage. For a relatively short book it surely packs a punch both in themes and language.
Like in Kundera’s exploration of the eternal return, readers may find themselves caught up in the web of relationships, plot points and character development. Unlike Kundera’s exploration, this was gentle. The exploration of the family is delightful; they are not all likeable but neither are they deplorable. They are just humans dealing with a changing world in changing times. It really is a reflection of the music of the spheres. A charming but important book opening my eyes to a world that is closed to most.