Téa Obreht’s new novel Inland—an epic tale of hardbitten folks struggling against the elements in the southwestern United States in the 1890s—invites an odd question: What does the Arabian one-humped camel have to do with Arizona?
It’s best explained by the case of the Sarajevo bear. In her 2017 short fiction collection Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey took inspiration from a true story about a bear at the Sarajevo zoo, which had been abandoned by zookeepers amid the city’s long and bloody siege during the Balkan Wars. The zoo was littered with the corpses of giraffes and big cats, but the bear had survived due to the efforts of a former bank-teller who dashed through the night to feed him. Dovey told that story from the perspective of the bear, who in turn tells a visiting human witch the story of his marriage. One day, the witch asks him about that bear he’d loved. “I can’t remember,” the bear replies, while “sucking contemplatively on the brown bear’s thighbone.” He’d eaten his cage-mate, having forgotten that she was his wife.
Like the trapped humans of Sarajevo, the bear and his co-prisoners slip one notch down the scale of “civilization,” and turn on one another. Their fates presage those of their human keepers—we’re fools to think we’re any smarter. Dovey grants her animal narrators speech with a twist of magic that calls to mind every other unheard voice from history: children, women, and those otherwise silenced by louder people’s wars.
The camel in Inland is the subject addressed by one of the novel’s two main characters, Lurie, a wayward orphan of apparently Serbian origin living in the Southwest. The reader doesn’t know the “you” Lurie has been talking to is a camel named Burke until the novel is well underway. The second-person form forces the reader to take up a novel vantage point—I am a camel, one realizes.
But then much is confusion in Inland, right up until the end. The novel winds together the stories of Lurie (sometimes called Misafir, which is “traveller” in Turkish), shipped from the Eastern Mediterranean into a life of crime Out West, and Nora, who is fighting to maintain her family homestead during a savage drought after her husband abandons her.
The two narratives begin all tangled up, alternating paragraphs, before separating out into chapter-long digressions about the two heroes’ lives. It would give the game away to explain how Nora and Lurie’s timelines end up colliding, but suffice to say it will remind you of the way train tracks can lock and switch across one another, connecting the whole world together where before there was only land.
Lurie swashbuckles his way through scenes—on a sea vessel, a river, a whorehouse—that may or may not be exaggerated to impress his audience; he’s very fond of the camel, part of the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps, a mid-nineteenth-century experiment in using them as pack animals. He’s a compulsive thief, though driven not by covetousness but by the ghost of his childhood friend Hobb, whose intense “want” entered Lurie’s soul. He can see the dead, as well as visions in his water canteen, his river-filled homeland flickering despite the blistering Arizona Territories heat.
Nora speaks to no animals. But like Lurie the camel-talker, she suffers from a delusion: her inability to acknowledge the fact that her husband and sons have disappeared and are not coming back. As the water in her barrel ebbs dangerously low, and her menfolk fail to return to replenish it, Nora’s denial slowly disintegrates, and her story radically changes shape.
This tangled style persists across Inland, which is written in modern English but with an almost Melvillian cadence. One friend of Nora’s, a doctor named Hector, tells a story of being “winter-stranded” in the boondocks, while Lurie a.k.a. Misafir is invariably labeled “a Turk” by the whites he meets. Flowery vocabulary muddles an already muddled plot: Inland is a grand and rollicking novel, reminiscent of Dickens or H. Rider Haggard. But Obreht brings a cosmopolitanism to her writing that those Victorians could not; her dual narrative is carried by a Muslim and a woman, neither of whom are in particularly good standing with the local authorities.
And then, of course, there’s the camel. Just as the Sarajevan zoo bear lived a kind of mirror life to the citizens held hostage nearby, Obreht’s indentured camel in colonized lands articulate all that is left unsaid by its human master. Dovey’s bear can talk, but Obreht’s camel cannot: Instead, we gain a picture of Burke’s intelligence and extraordinary abilities through his rider’s monologue. Lurie never explicitly discusses the genocide of the Native Americans who appear from time to time in Inland, but his alienation from white society, who label him “Small Hirsute Levantine” in a wanted poster, makes him an unsympathetic observer of white supremacy. Obreht’s camel is a walking symbol for the voiceless, including displaced peoples and those whose bodies have been abused by owners. Who better to act as witness to America in the nineteenth century?