The narrator of Sudanese Amir Tag Elsir’s Telepathy (2015), a moderately successful author, returns from a trip to Kuala Lumpur, where he has been gathering impressions, incidents, ideas, character traits and even potential characters for his next novel. However, back in Khartoum, he finds himself living in the peculiar fall-out of his previous novel, Hunger’s Hope, when he runs into a man with the same name as its improbably-named protagonist, Nishan Hamza Nishan.
At first the narrator thinks it is some kind of stunt. Or perhaps an overzealous fan has, in misguided tribute, changed his name.
But the ‘real’ Nishan only found out about the ‘fictional’ Nishan when a neighbour – Shu‘ayb Zuhr, an unemployed graduate of the college of Public Relations and, it turns out, aspiring but uninspiring poet – brought Hunger’s Hope to his attention.
And, anyway, the ‘real’ Nishan has only read the first 120 pages. He does not know that in the second half of the novel the ‘fictional’ Nishan – whose biography up to that point is uncannily similar to his own – dies an untimely death.
The narrator recalls that writing Hunger’s Hope came to him much too easily – as if the ‘real’ Nishan had dictated it to him telepathically. Indeed, he concludes, telepathy is the only way the near identity of the ‘fictional’ and the ‘real’ Nishans can be explained; the divergences between their ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ lives are surely the result of the ‘real’ Nishan’s broadcasting telepathically but unconsciously. (The narrator’s mentor, the octagenerian playwright Abd al-Qawl, is little help; he merely recalls that one of his most controversial early plays was dictated to him through 26 dreams on 26 consecutive night.)
What is the narrator to do? What does he owe to the ‘real’ Nishan? Has he – by giving the novel that ending – condemned the ‘real’ Nishan to an early grave? And where has the ‘real’ Nishan suddenly disappeared to? And what should the narrator do when former communist Asim Ajib, once known as Asim Revolution, and now founder of the Nonaligned Publishing house invents a jacket blurb by him for a collection of Shu‘ayb Zuhr’s poems? Are there plots and conspiracies, however absurd, afoot? And what exactly is the role of Najma, wannabe writer, not-exactly-fan/not-exactly-friend in all of this? And why has she chosen him as the father of the child she want to have?
Amir Tag Elsir’s short comic novel is full of curious incident and odd, often rather sad, characters, such as Murtaja, a young man who ‘was studying at the university and went mad. Now he declares confidently that he is Wikipedia … and that in his head are a billion pages on which the entire world is written’; he roams ‘around in torn shorts, staring at the ground while reciting odd stories from the version of the Wikipedia that lived in his head’. The narrators life and Khartoum itself are slightly out-of-focus jumbles of layered histories, of migrations and separations, of differences of wealth, custom, tradition and rank.
A quick and easy read, Telepathy piles up rather more questions than it answers. Its conclusion is deliberately abrupt. A final sentence screeches the novel to a halt, reframing (but not explaining) everything that has happened (or not happened) before.
Tag Elsir, born in Sudan and now resident in Qatar, is the nephew of Tayeb Salih, author of Season of Migration to the North (1966) which was one of my top reads of 2016; it is much too soon to decide whether Telepathy will make this years list.