Zoe Kramer reviews Four Dervishes by Hammad Rind, a surreal and fantastical novel written in reverence to the act of storytelling itself.
“And then there was no light.” So begins Khusro’s tale in Four Dervishes, with a tongue-in-cheek inversion of Genesis. A power outage plunges him into a dark world which seems to exist outside of time, as he gathers with four strangers around a fire to shelter from the rain and out-wait the power cut. Each person – in turn – shares their story. The darkness remains awash throughout each unfolding narrative, and yet, the tales they tell are paradoxically vibrant.
The first one to recount their story is Leila, an aristocrat from a land where women are prized for their knees. Her story isn’t moralistic or preachy, and yet captures the absurdity of gender roles through its biting satire. She is married to a book to prevent her family’s lands from being split up, and spends her wedding night reading about natural history. Rind’s shrewd humor at times borders on farce, and yet is grounded by the humanity of his characters.
Freddy’s story offers a similar duality split between the comedic nature of the storytelling, and the heart wrenching struggles of its protagonist. Raised by a mother who wants to erase all traces of the family’s Eastern roots — to the point of condemning the very direction itself — there is an earnest disquiet that drives Freddy in search of an identity. He speaks of “an inextinguishable love of my real home, the land of which I have no memories”. There is palpable power in the way he describes the pull of his ancestral land, a place which he is both native to and isolated from. This is not undercut or diminished by the humor of the story, however, does at times set it off balance, giving an off-kilter edge.
That the pace of Four Dervishes is meandering is a part of its charm, however it can sometimes linger on the minutia and microscopic to an extent which occasionally interrupts the flow of the larger story. This hyperfixation on certain details feels supplementary at first, but – as the novel wears on —ultimately lends insufficient interest to warrant the interference, and eventually becomes somewhat tiresome.
Four Dervishes’s central topic is an unapologetic exploration of storytelling itself. This reverence is dedicated not only to the ways stories can bring people together, but also to the beauty of stories in and of themselves. Hence we find stories ornately framed within stories – meta-narratives curated by Khusro. This outer layer of narration, in contrast with the lovely strangeness of the inner stories, manages to be immersive in a different, more traditional way. We pause between tales to note a change in the weather, to hear a knock on the door or to wait for a narrator to catch their breath or return from the bathroom. In this sense, the reader is welcomed into the warm intricacies of storytelling as a human act, just as though we were also one of the guests.
In a time when the dominant form of the novel rejects all but the mildly improbable in the name of realism, this work embraces the exceptional. Earthquakes bring lovers together, wars are waged against barbers and men are turned into trees. It is a refreshing celebration of the fantastical, and is unburdened with a need to rationalise or justify that which breaks the boundaries of standard modern narrative. It is beautifully embellished, delightfully indelicate, and full of heart.
Four Dervishes by Hammad Rind is available via Seren Books.