An extraordinary literary artist offers a powerful vision of tomorrow in a world barely touched by the passing centuries.There is life in the Nekropolis -- but no future. Hariba spent her youth here, among the exquisite paper flower wreaths her mother meticulously constructed, playing contentedly with other children around the rows and rows of old buildings housing the crumbling bones of the dead. But when an older brother's criminal indiscretion robbed Hariba of any possibility of a husband, she agreed to have herself "jessed" -- submitting to the technoblological process designed to render her docile and subservient to whomever has purchased her service.
In this exquisite if melancholy novel, McHugh (Mission Child) evokes a repressive, intensely sexist 22nd century Morocco that is largely cut off from the rest of the world by the dictates of the Second Koran. Hariba, a young servant woman, has grown up in the Nekropolis, an ancient burial ground that also serves as home to the city of Fez's teeming poor. Unsuccessful in love, she chooses to be "jessed," undergoing a medical procedure designed to turn her into the perfect servant, one who is psychologically incapable of being disloyal to her employer. Unfortunately, however, Hariba soon runs afoul of her employer's wife, a restless shrew of a woman who devotes most of her time to bismek, a convoluted form of participatory virtual-reality soap opera. Worse still, Hariba, who's terribly lonely, falls in love with Akhmim, a harni or artificial person, who looks human, but isn't. Akhmim "impresses" on Hariba, returning her feelings as best he can. Indentured to another employer, she misses Akhmim terribly and eventually runs away with him. Alternating between four narrators Hariba, Akhmim, Hariba's mother and Hariba's best friend, Ayesha McHugh centers her novel on a well-realized set of sympathetic, but imperfect characters. Each speaks with a distinct voice, describing a complex and not entirely healthy web of friendships and familial relationships. McHugh's Morocco, with its intensely symbolic Nekropolis, is very real, but ultimately it is Hariba, Akhmim and their heartbreaking, impossible relationship that the reader will remember. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra. (Aug. 30) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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November 12, 2002
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Excerpt from Nekropolis by Maureen F. McHugh
How I came to be jessed. Well, like most people who are jessed, I was sold. I was twenty-one, and I was sold three times in one day, one right after another; first to a dealer who looked at my teeth and in my ears and had me scanned for augmentation; then to a second dealer where I sat in the back office drinking tea and talking with a gap-toothed boy who was supposed to be sold to a restaurant owner as a clerk; and finally that afternoon to the restaurant owner. The restaurant owner couldn't really have wanted the boy anyway, since the position was for his wife's side of the house.
The jessing itself happened rather quickly, at the first dealer's. There was a package with foreign writing on it, from the north across the sea, so even the letters were strange and unreadable. He made me lean my head back and open my mouth, and he sprayed the roof of my mouth with an anesthetic. Then he opened the package and took out the tool to do the jessing. Watching him, I had leaned my head forward a bit and closed my mouth. "Lean back," he said. I leaned back again and looked at the ceiling. The roof of my mouth felt thick, as if I had drunk something that scalded it, except of course that it didn't hurt. I felt the pressure of something pressed against the roof of my mouth and there was a sound like a phffft.
I was more afraid when he'd done it than I'd been before. It was done. I couldn't back out. The jessing process was happening somewhere in my brain and I was changing. Jessing is supposed to enhance natural loyalties, but right then I wasn't feeling loyal to much of anything -- even my mother's voice was raw on my nerves. Scared! I was so scared I could feel the sweat under my arms.
I wasn't really sold, of course. It's just that the medicine they use to do the jessing is made in the E.C.U., not here in Morocco. It's black-market and costs. The dealer has to get paid a lot, and that money goes against the bond that I owe to my owner. Not really owe, it's more money than I'll ever make unless maybe I save everything, never buy as much as a pair of earrings, and work for fifty years. And besides, when you're jessed, you're not supposed to want to leave. You're supposed to be trustworthy.
Sitting with the gap-toothed boy at the second dealer's, I still didn't feel loyal. I felt irritable and annoyed and nervous. I had expected never to feel that way again. I had expected my loyalty would be absolute, like the loyalty of a soldier, or a saint.
When Mbarek-salah came and hired me, I still didn't feel anything, not even when the dealer pronounced the trigger words. I didn't know at the time that the actual jessing process takes weeks, sometimes even months. I never felt like a soldier, though. I learned the sad fact that I couldn't give my life away, that anywhere I went, there I was. If a girl asked me tomorrow if she should be jessed, I don't know what I'd say. It's not a bad life. It's better than being an old maid in the Nekropolis, the part of the old city where I grew up. I'd have to ask her: What are you leaving?
I have been with my present owner since I was twenty-one. I'm twenty-six now. I was a good student, I got good marks in math and literature, so I was bonded to oversee cleaning and supplies. That's better than if I were a pretty girl and had to rely on looks. Then I would be used up in a few years.
I like my owner, like my work. But now I'd like to go to him and ask him to sell me.
"Hariba," he'd say, taking my hand in his fatherly way, "Aren't you happy here?"
"Mbarek-salah," I'd answer, my eyes demurely on my toes. "You are like a father and I have been only too happy with you." Which is true even beyond being jessed, praise God. I don't think I'd mind being part of Mbarek's household, even if I were unbound. Mostly Mbarek pays no attention to me, which is how I prefer things. I like my work and my room.