Mogador: The Names of the Air

by William Holinger
Mogador is a prize-winning novella that explores the aesthetics of desire. In this short novel, desire is beautiful, fantastic, and omnipresent, and although the extreme longing of the protagonist, a young woman named Fatma, remains largely unfulfilled, one hesitates to leave the world of the book even for a moment because being in that world is such a rich, sensuous experience.

Mogador, an enchanted (and imaginary) city on an island in the warm waters off the coast of Morocco, is surrounded by a white wall. It is said that sailors approach this gleaming city with joy, "thinking that she is like the moon, that she lies in the water and calls to them." Approaching sailors may hear Mogador before they see it, however, for the very sounds of the city produce a haunting song:

Crowning each of the six hundred and sixty-six towers on the wall, a hollow, stone dragon turns in the wind like a weather vane, takes in the sounds of the city through a funnel between its hind legs and hurls them out its throat, transformed into a complex arabesque song, which they say causes those who hear it for the first time to weep with emotion.

At the heart of Mogador lies the Hammam, a public bath with fountains and many rooms, dedicated to the sensuous indulgence of the body. The Hammam is open only to women until midday, and thereafter only to men. It is a place out of time, a place where the prohibitions of all religions are suspended and where myth, imagination, and living flesh intermingle:

Certain rooms in the Hammam have walls of stone covered by erotic scenes that were not painted by human hands. They say the walls were originally blank, but over the years have absorbed the obscene forms that pass through the minds of those frequenting the Hammam. However, there are also those who think that in fact the walls themselves desire. That their surface is a kind of fresco of a mind on which are drawn the longings of a supernatural being...living in the Hammam, overexcited by the bodies that offer themselves to its waters.

Mogador concerns Fatma's quest to fulfill her sudden desire, an overwhelming feeling, a "prolonged anticipation." She eventually finds fulfillment in the Hammam, but only briefly; as her grandmother has predicted, she is unable to recognize love for what it is until too late. In that sense the novella is an Arabic "Beast in the Jungle," but there is nothing else in it that remotely resembles anything out of Henry James. Mogador, which won the 1987 Villaruttia Prize for Best Mexican Novel, is strikingly informed by various Arabic cultures at the same time that it combines aspects of Mexican poetry with elements of magical realism. Like its author, Mexican poet Alberto Ruy Sanchez, it is as culturally heterogeneous as most American nations. The translation, by Mark Schafer, is superb.

I must mention one potential reservation. A writer friend once told me that she never reads novels written by a man from a woman's point of view. "I'd like to hear more about what's on men's minds," she said. "I'm not interested in what men project onto women." In that vein it could be argued that Ruy Sanchez has projected onto a female character his own erotic fantasies -- his version of how women desire -- and thus that the book, a mere male sexual fantasy, is false and irrelevant.

Fortunately, this narrow view of the work doesn't hold up, partly because Mogador contains several devastating criticisms of the notion that men are superior to women, an idea that has often led to the virtual as well as the literal enslavement of women by men.

One such criticism is conveyed by an anecdote about a merchant who deals in female slaves and comes to a gruesome end. Another criticism is played out in a subplot involving Fatma. Late in the novel, a young fisherman named Mohammed takes a strong liking to her. "How I would like to see your shoes placed under my bed every night," he tells her. But Fatma emphatically rejects this version of enslavement (marriage):

She felt this to be more offensive than the time the other fisherman had tried to touch her in the street. Rather than pawing her, this man wished to anchor her beside him, to wrap her up forever....

He preferred to believe...that by including a woman in his plans, he was saving her from some extreme danger and so she would always owe him her life -- every corner of her life.

Thus Ruy Sanchez balances a double paradox: his novella about female desire, written by a man, criticizes Islamic and Latin-American concepts of male dominance. It's a dazzling philosophical conundrum -- a Sphinx-like riddle that only a king or a poet could solve.

In any event, the pervasive desire in Mogador is particularized: it's the calling out of one body to another, one spirit to another, one soul to another. Fatma's desire is not random, but focused: she knows all along that only one particular person can satisfy her. This infatuating novella is not about eroticism; it's about love.