The Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti

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A slightly old-fashioned manner no doubt,  on narrating the tales of a modern wayfarer but one held with  an easy mastery and a fountain pen akin to that of a magic wand. The Voices of Marrakesh, surely a memorable work of travel literature and made up of a deliciously condensed 103 pages, wonderfully translated from the German by J.A. Underwood… worked immensely to soothe my own travelling spirit and impatient luggage like a hearty tonic. The late prolific Bulgarian writer – and as you shall see from his profile, Elias Canetti was many things, considered the modernist novelist to that of a travel writer – and also once, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981; his remembered genius is enthusiastically spun in this  wondrous rambling description comprising intriguing if not bizarre scenes, colourful voices, strange gestures and a medley of sights, sounds and smells, that go on to make an atmospheric flamboyant true-to-life classic tale in a humble Marrakesh square.
Thus, each everyday landscape may be seen as a spectacle, every backdrop a fable, every grumpy or sinister face… a wizard that may have sprouted from a fairy-tale….
From the long-suffering misfortunes of unfortunate camels and donkeys at the hands of their bullying masters and then on to somber-faced souk owners and their seemingly ethereal relationships performed with bazaars and their accompanying ornaments and from aggressive beggars, secretive families, holy men and arrogant storytellers  to peculiar customs and furtive glamorous women that masquerade as ladies-of-the-night, Canetti is subject to a series of unforgettable adventures that hail from the different behaviors of race and heritage in this case, made up of the Arabs, Jews, Europeans and Americans.

The writer’s treasured kaleidoscope of events and images through ever-shifting momentary episodes, turned up as my sacred morning-time reading today.
Once more, the traveller’s spirit was awakened in my own caravan-ed soul as I stayed alert to the fables and extraordinary dramatic encounters that impressed upon my being, the hidden secrets of alleyways, pavements, market squares and that even the ritual of bargaining mind you…that fleeting cryptic relationship between customer and shopowner, may hide a wealth of puzzling information.
Besides what I had described above, three particular things spoke deeply to my own hopeful ambitions as a travel writer. One of these surely had to serve as an ointment for I shall forever stay the poor linguist. Yet, I was especially gladdened to see how Canetti deliberately ignored the study of a language, just so that he could catch the power of foreign sounds in all its strange and bewildering magic. This proved indeed comforting.
Here he says, “A marvellously luminous, viscid substance is left behind in me, defying words. Is it the language I did not understand there, and that must now gradually find its translation in me?  There were incidents, images, sounds, the meaning of which is only now emerging; that words neither recorded nor edited; that are beyond words, deeper and more equivocal than words.” – The Voices of Marrakesh –
The second bit of remembrance lay in the depth of Canetti’s honesty for he often stayed candid while meditating on a recollection of disjointed, maligned affairs.  How often like Canetti, I too, the stranger in an unfamiliar place had sometimes been the butt of a joke for having failed to understand a custom or ritual, that I too may have once in a while relied on wrong instructions, been caught embarassed at the wrong place and the wrong point or stayed clumsy in my approach for the use of say, an insular tram system in a small town.
Thus, how vividly in this context then does Canetti goes on to describe his own abashed expressions, his lost sense of direction, his alonness, his longing and wanting for things he often had to search through wayward paths, a long time for. I adore it…these little shy confessions confetti-ed all over the place.
For me, the solitary magic line had to be perhaps the most ordinary thing when Canetti wrote… “…and we wondered whether the camel caravan had crossed the Atlas…”  Crossed the Atlas…such a powerful line that commanded the capability to instantly hold me enraptured. It would be like reading of a traveller who on a mundane morning suddenly remembered an episode of when he had strolled into the Artic, seen the Everest, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, leapt across the earth’s dateline…
I instantly recalled a film…a French dvd which I have had the foresight to carry in my luggage…where a man gives up his day job without notice and travels to Italy one Monday morning, when he’s supposed to report for work at the factory. He’s tired of the routine and yearns for something more. He goes to visit a rich forgotten uncle who once worked in the Foreign Legion. The young man is heartily welcomed and the uncle soon takes out his  letters, documents, diaries and cigars…  He carefully elaborateson how his little treasure chest contains his years in Constantinople, Alexandria, Cairo…  Instantly, I as a viewer had tasted the magic of his memory.
Now reading Canetti in a hotel room, my luggage terribly impatient for the next flight, I too, see a string of camels crossing the Atlas in my hidden spellbound eye and soon I am on an invisible magic carpet, higher than any plane could possibly whisk me. – susan abraham

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