Soldier echoes Arabian Nights with Iraq novel

TOKYO Thu Dec 22, 2011 10:21am EST

The cover of Benjamin Buchholz's debut novel ''One Hundred and One Nights''. REUTERS/Hachette Book Group

The cover of Benjamin Buchholz's debut novel ''One Hundred and One Nights''.

Credit: Reuters/Hachette Book Group

TOKYO (Reuters) - On Benjamin Buchholz's second day in Iraq as a U.S. army officer, a young Iraqi girl was struck and killed by a military convoy while trying to catch a bottle of water thrown to children by the roadside as a gift.

The tragedy and its aftermath -- wailing women, townspeople up in arms, the girl's body on the road covered with a blanket -- haunted him, eventually becoming the seed of a novel that helped him fulfill an old dream of becoming a writer.

"The image of that girl on the roadway stuck with me for a long time and fused with some other things that happened," Buchholz said in a telephone interview from his home in New Jersey, where he is now studying for a graduate degree.

"This book is definitely not non-fiction, it's a fictionalized processing of this whole town and this whole experience, trying to make sense of it. The same way you wouldn't call 'Catch-22' or 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' non-fiction, or any of these other books about war."

Buchholz's debut novel, "One Hundred and One Nights," is narrated by its central character Abu Saheeh, a native Iraqi who has returned after 13 years in the United States, running a mobile phone shop and trying to rebuild his life.

As he stands watching U.S. military traffic outside his shop one evening, he meets Layla, a 14-year-old girl who loves Britney Spears, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and everything else American. Their friendship grows as Abu Saheeh is drawn deeply into the shifting alliances of his town and reminded of his painful past -- with ultimately cataclysmic results.

The book's echo of the great Middle Eastern epic, "The One Thousand and One Nights," is deliberate, working with traditions of oral storytelling programmed into mankind through generations.

"The idea I set out when I was writing it was that I was going to have this little girl appear every day and tell this man who's psychologically wounded little tales, and keep him going the way that Scheherazade would tell tales to keep herself alive," Buchholz said.

"We know Layla's going to come, and we know that the next night she's going to come and tell a story, and we know how these two characters will interact. Those are little warm-up things to get the crowd going and get them into the situation -- and I think it's a really nice literary device from the time when people would tell stories to each other," he added.

"Then the frame breaks down as he breaks down a little later."

Though Abu Saheeh is based slightly on a man Buchholz came to know during his year in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan, other bits of the enigmatic Iraqi's personality came from the men who taught him at the U.S. Defense Language Institute, where he was based while writing the book.

In the end, though, Abu Saheeh is fiction, and while Buchholz said writing from the point of view of an Iraqi man was a challenge that he enjoyed.

"If I were just to write what I know and write from my own perspective, I would have gotten bored. It just takes such a long time to produce a novel, and I don't think I could hear myself echo in my own head for that long," he said.

He figured that any Americanisms that crept in could be explained by Abu Saheeh's long sojourn in the United States.

"As for whether it's presumptuous or not to write from somebody else's point of view, I think that's the big leap of faith you have to take as an author of fiction," he said.

"If you're not writing non-fiction you're taking a leap somewhere, and what comes out is good enough that the reader leaps along with you - or it's not."