David Ball (1949), a writer from the United States of America, is a well travelled man. Some of his travels took him the African continent. He did all kinds of jobs and he even tried his hand at writing. His first result in this field is this novel on the sands of Sahara and life in Paris.
The sands of the Sahara and the life of Tuareg is a loved topic for novels. In this thick book (it could have been easily a bit thinner) he connect Parisian nobility with Tuareg nobility. This raises the question of belonging. Where do I belong? Where are my roots? Am I caught in the middle? Child of two worlds and nowhere at home?
The first part of the book is set in Paris, the year is 1866. The French are in danger for the Pruisian army is heading for the French capital. We meet Count Henri de Vries, he is a nobleman with a longing for faraway places and new ideas. On one of his journeys in northern Africa he tested a hot air balloon. During this attempt he met a young lady Serena, a Tuareg, sister to a amenokal (leader) of the Man in Blue. They have a son Moussa Michel Kella. The young lives in cultures even though he lives at a noble property in Paris. He spent much time with Paul, son to Jules and Elisabeth de Vries. The two boys shared their thoughts and their adventures in these heady days of as a revolt takes place in Paris and the Pruisians are approaching the town. In these difficult days Henri de Vries wanted to follow his own path, but this is not accepted by the changing mood in town. In the end the family decided to take the difficult decision to flee Paris.
The second part of the book is set in the Sahara, the year 1876 is given. We follow the steps of Moussa, a young Tuareg man. For him Paris and French culture is fading. He has become part and parcel of Tuareg culture, but a parcel with mixed content. He is related to the amenokal. This did not make life easy for him. He has to show he is loyal to tradition.
Also Paul, who stayed in Paris, has his own place in this part of history. He voluntered to be part of the French army, exploring the possibilities of a trainlink in the desert and through the desert. It is ofcourse inevitable the two man meet. Paul is the soldier taking his stand for France and defending the tricolore. Moussa is the man at home in the desert and faithful to Tuareg traditions and the position of the Tuareg in the desert.
The book does not rush to its end. Ball takes his time. I think he could have written less words, to make it an even more forceful book. At times he exagerates a bit and insert a few coincidences. Ball pits up a nice defense for the Tuareg culture over against the French invasion in Algeria and the desert. He shows the position of Moussa, who is caught between two cultures.
The book has been a good read.
David Ball – Empires of Sand – 1999