G. Willow Wilson – Alif the Unseen

Wilson, G. Willow (2012). Alif the Unseen. London: Corvus. 2012. ISBN 9780857895684. Pagine 448. 3,90 €


Se questo non fosse un blog ma, che ne so, una rubrica letteraria su un giornale, avrei probabilmente la categoria della “rivelazione dell’anno” e Alif the Unseen meriterebbe il primo posto. Il romanzo non è un capolavoro in assoluto, e non è nemmeno privo di difetti, ma è sicuramente molto originale, soprattutto per l’amalgama di elementi che vi sono ben mescolati.

G. Willow Wilson (non sono riuscito a capire su nessuno dei siti consultati se la nostra autrice ha un doppio nome o un doppio cognome, o se questo sia uno pseudonimo) ha poco più di 30 anni ed è nata in New Jersey (come Bruce Springsteen); mentre faceva l’università a Boston si è convertita all’Islam (traggo queste notizie da Wikipedia). Sul suo sito, G. Willow Wilson scrive di sé:

G. Willow Wilson began her writing career at the age of 17, when she freelanced as a music and DJ critic for Boston’s Weekly Dig magazine. Since then, she’s written the Eisner Award-nominated comic book series Air and Mystic: The Tenth Apprentice and the graphic novelCairo. Her first novel, Alif the Unseen, was a New York Times Notable book. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Flaherty-Dunnan Award.
Willow spent her early and mid twenties living in Egypt and working as a journalist. Her articles about the Middle East and modern Islam have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly and the Canada National Post. Her memoir about life in Egypt during the waning years of the Mubarak regime, The Butterfly Mosque, was named a Seattle Times Best Book of 2010.

Se dovessi riassumere il romanzo in una sola parola, direi che è un romanzo cyber-jinn: più o meno allo stesso modo in cui è stato coniato il termine cyber-punk per etichettare i romanzi di William Gibson e Bruce Sterling (il termine nasce come titolo di un racconto di Bruce Bethke nel 1980, ma i riferimenti d’obbligo sono alla trilogia di Gibson NeuromancerCount ZeroMona Lisa Overdrive ma anche al Neal Stephenson di Snow Crash), il termine steam-punk per il cyber-punk ambientato in era vittoriana (facendo riferimento aoltanto a quello che ho letto, mi vengono in mente The Difference Engine di William Gibson e Bruce Sterling, ma soprattutto The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer di Neal Stephenson – che condivide con Alif the Unseen il tema del libro – e persino, in una certa misura, Perdido Street Station di China Miéville) e il termine cypher-punk (Cryptonomicon di Neal Stephenson sopra tutti).

La vicenda di Alif the Unseen – ma non dirò nulla che vi possa guastare il gusto della scoperta e della lettura – è ambientata al giorno d’oggi in una città-stato del Golfo Persico, con enormi disparità di classe e uno stato poliziesco occhiuto e repressivo. Il giovane protagonista è un hacker, pronto a lavorare per tutti coloro che vogliono sfuggire alla censura ma privo di una precisa coscienza politica. Alif è invisibile perché vive in una sorta di hacker-invisibilità, ma è destino che tutte le invisibilità si incontrino, e dunque anche quelli dei socialmente invisibili («La città – dice uno dei personaggi del romanzo – è divisa in 3 zone: quella dei ricchi da sempre, quella dei nuovi ricchi e quella di chi è senza soldi») e dei mitologicamente invisibili, i jinn che si collocano nella creazione come stadio intermedio tra gli angeli e gli umani. Il MacGuffin che collega tutti questi mondi (come direbbe  Hitchcock) è un libro leggendario, i Mille e un giorni, il corrispettivo jinn della Mille e una notte. cui sono attribuiti poteri soprannaturali.

Il romanzo ha anche qualche debolezza (alcuni personaggi sono totalmente privi di spessore) e molte ingenuità, soprattutto nella struttura narratologica, che è piuttosto convenzionale. Fastidioso anche, almeno per me, l’affiorare qua e là delle convinzioni politico-religiose dell’autrice.

Ma il libro è comunque da raccomandare.

* * *

La filosofia politica del libro può essere distillata abbastanza facilmente da poche citazioni. Eccole:

“We did this, akh. Computer geeks did this. We told these ruffians they could all have a voice, but they had to share the same virtual platform. And now that the virtual platform is gone—”
“They have to share the real world.”
“In real life.” [4657: uno dei punti centrali del libro, sotto il profilo politico, offerto come spiegazione delle primavere arabe]

“[…] Revolutions are ninety percent social diarrhea.”
“Spoken like a true aristocrat […]” [4699]

“Of course it’s a revolution. Did you see the number of women in the streets? […]” [4702]

“[…] It’s like watching a half-melted ice cube—impossible to infer its original shape, or that of the puddle it will eventually become”. [4862]

“[…] Revolutions only get names after it’s clear who won”. [4864]

“It’s because of people like you that we have to go unseen in order to be honest. You’ve made the truth impossible anywhere but in the dark, behind false names. […]” [4965]

“[…] The unseen is unseen. The apparent is inescapable.” [5121]

* * *

Dei jinn e della loro mitologia ci parla la stessa autrice nel sito del romanzo:

The Five Types of Jinn and Their Threat to Your Digital Security

Islamic belief divides sentient beings into three categories. In order of creation, they are: the angels (malayka), the hidden ones (jinn), and humankind (nas or banu adam). Angels are made out of light, jinn out of fire, men out of earth (sometimes translated as mud or clay). Angels are considered neither male nor female and have no free will. Jinn, like humans, are gendered, and have free will. (This is why, in Islamic thought, Satan is a jinn, not an angel; it would be impossible for an angel to disobey the will of God.) Jinn may be benevolent, evil, or neutral, but are generally regarded as less trustworthy and more prone to trickery than people, even if they are benign. In addition to the types of jinn mentioned here, there are many lesser varieties of jinn that appear in local legends that vary from place to place. For example, in Egypt, there are thought to be female jinn who inhabit the canals and tributaries of the Nile and lure men to their deaths, much like sirens, but they don’t appear elsewhere in the Arab world.


MARID  (pronounced MAA–rid)
Large and imposing, the marid are considered the most powerful tribe of jinn. They are the classic genies of folklore, often portrayed as barrelchested men with booming voices.
Originally sea-spirits, they are often associated with water, and thought to take sanctuary in the open ocean. While marid are very powerful, they are not technically minded and therefore unlikely to infect your hard drive. However, there is at least one known case of a marid being imprisoned in a flash drive and doing quite a lot of damage to the operating system, attempting to free itself. Please be aware when opening any unfamiliar attachments and if any of your computer’s peripherals exhibit a telltale blue-gray cast, please disconnect from your machine and take them to a qualified technician.


(pronounced eff–FREET)
Intelligent and cunning, the effrit are thought to live in complex societies similar to those of humans. They are said to prefer caves and under ground dwellings. Though ostensibly demonic, they are portrayed as changeable in nature, and capable of becoming pious and good. In the Quran, King Solomon is said to have had power over a tribe of effrit, who performed various tasks for him.
Effrit are the greatest risk for phishing scams and online privacy violations, as they are natural schemers and also understand human personality and social interaction the best. It is thought that quite a few effrit amuse themselves sending Facebook messages to attractive potential mates using the profiles of call center employees and programmers in India, the Middle East, and the Philippines, who are bewildered by the response. More seriously, however, some effrit have the capability of writing code themselves, and it is thought that the Conficker worm, which infected some fifty million computers worldwide, may have been written by a group combining effrit and human members. Effrit are not to be taken lightly, but they can only be guarded against by the standard information safety protocols used with human threats—be wary of unverified interlocutors and executable content, and if your system slows or behaves oddly, conduct a thorough scan or contact your IT professional.


(Arabic pronunciation uses a guttural gg sound somewhere
between an English G and a French R)
This tribe of jinn has traveled north and west to become a common English- language term for “undead monster.” This is pretty close to its original Arabic connotation; ghouls are thought to be zombie-like jinn who haunt graveyards and prey on human flesh. They are strictly demonic and incapable of goodness. Often portrayed as nocturnal. Given their limited intelligence, ghouls are low risk in the information technology world—but you really don’t want to run into one in a dark alley.


Talented shape-shifters who are more tolerant of human society than other tribes of jinn, sila are most often portrayed as female. Thought to be extremely intelligent, sila are nonetheless the most rarely seen of all the types of jinn, and appear only sporadically in folklore. There is speculation that the term sila might be related to seelie, a Middle English word for “a good faerie.” (This would make sense, as sila does not appear to correspond to an Arabic root pattern.) Sila are extremely rare, both on- and off-line, and while they are  intelligent and comfortable crossing back and forth between realms seen and unseen/human and jinn, by their nature they do not usually set out to harm or trick humans. Sila are, however, fond of meddling in an attempt to help. That Livejournal community member who intervened when you got overinvolved with that troll in the George R.R. Martin community?
Possibly a sila.


The original vampires, vetala are semi-malevolent spirits from ancient Indian folklore. They can possess human corpses and prevent them from decaying, and in so doing trick human beings into believing the vetala is an ordinary person. However, vetala can also change shape at will. They are thought to be natural psychics, able to foretell the future and gain insight into the past, as well as read the thoughts of others. The most famous vetala appears in “The Vampire and King Vikram,” a set of stories from the Baital Pachisi. Vetala are quite rare, and while they are certainly intelligent enough to threaten your computer, their superior mental and psychic abilities make technology somewhat irrelevant to their needs. To the extent you are likely to encounter a vetala online, it is likely posing brain-twisting rhetorical questions that keep you on a messageboard well past your bedtime.
Always remember that the unseen can take on disproportionate power —which goes for genies and online demagogues in equal measure. If your blood pressure rises, step away from the computer and make a cup of tea. Vetala are also extremely fond of Words With Friends—they are excellent players and lots of fun to engage with, even if their superior skill may prove frustrating.

Information technology specialists have been working for some time to identify and profile the unique online habits of jinn, in order to better protect human users. However, after the disastrous outcome of the Tin Sari program, there is a general consensus that the likelihood of abuse of this program to target benevolent jinn is too great a risk. Until a better solution presents itself, surf carefully, and if you believe your computer has been attacked by jinn, contact your IT professional.

* * *

Oltre a essere un romanzo di qualità, alcune delle notazioni contenute al suo interno sono anche interessanti in sé e hanno una qualità quasi saggistica. Per una volta, vi incito a leggerle anche se siete pigri  (consueti riferimenti alla posizione Kindle):

Society didn’t mind if you broke the rules; it only required you to acknowledge them. [93]

“Metaphors are dangerous. Calling something by a false name changes it, and metaphor is just a fancy way of calling something by a false name.” [111]

Better chaos than slow suffocation. [170]

“Why does he need to know?” she asked. “The less he knows, the less he has to lie about when they come for him. […]” [914]

The City, Abdullah had once quipped, is divided into three parts: old money, new money, and no money. [1128]

“[…] all roads of inquiry end in the same place.” [1244]

“Dear child, some stories have no morals. Sometimes darkness and madness are simply that.”
“How terrible,” said Farukhuaz.
“Do you think so? I find it reassuring. It saves me from having to divine meaning in every sorrow that comes my way”.

“When the Alf Yeom was first dictated to a human being by one of our kind, many hundreds of years ago, that man—his name was Reza—made four copies. He was a member of a heretical sect called the Battini — they lived in Persia and were connected to the Assassins. Perhaps you’ve heard of those. Anyway. The manuscripts were passed down through the Battini from master to student. Each generation attempted to discover what they believed was secret knowledge hidden within the text, through which they expected to gain supernatural powers. None succeeded.” [1996: i Battini. Chissà se sono quelli che conosco io]

“Languages are different for a reason. You can’t move ideas between them without losing something. […]” [2027]

“You’re losing the narrative of things […]” [2098]

[…] the Hyksos, known today as the Arabs. [2397]

[…] presentist […] [2511: pensavo fosse un neologismo, ma il Merriam-Webster lo dà come aggettivo di presentism – an attitude toward the past dominated by present-day attitudes and experiences – e lo attesta dal 1923]

Metaphors: knowledge existing in several states simultaneously and without contradiction. [2780: G. Willow Wilson ha evidentemente studiato il suo Metaphors We Live By]

“Knowledge must be fixed in some way if it is to be preserved  […]” [2791]

“The greatest triumph of Shaytan is the illusion that you are in control. He lurks on the forking paths, lying in wait for those who become overconfident and lose their way.” [2802]

[…] reasoning that time was less costly than error. [2864]

“[…] There is no such thing as evil knowledge.” [3203]

“Superstition is thriving. Pedantry is thriving. Sectarianism is thriving. Belief is dying out. To most of your people the djinn are paranoid fantasies who run around causing epilepsy and mental illness. Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Books. You’ll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.  […]” [3683]

It was a child’s nightmare, the fantasy of a mind too innocent to encompass human evil, but capable of imagining something far worse. [3819]

The few Americans he had encountered in his lifetime had all seemed flat to him, as if freedom weakened one’s capacity for intense emotion by demanding too little of  it. [4202]

“[…] you have reactions, not convictions.” [4328]

“I am exercising the prerogative of an old man and changing my mind.” [4516]

“Look where they’ve gotten us. I don’t know why I can’t just solve things the ordinary way like everyone else.”
“Perhaps you don’t have ordinary problems.” [4521]

We are living in a post-fictional era. Fictional governments are accepted without comment […]. [4528]

[…] every innovation started out as a fantasy. [4534]


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