‘An Account of the Land of Witches’ by Sofia Samatar

Within Samatar’s ‘Account’, an ‘Account of the Land of Witches’ by the slave Arta prompts the ensuing ‘Refutation of the Account of Witches’ by Arta’s master, which incites ‘A Refutation of the Refutation of the Account of the Land of Witches’ by Sagal, a scholar trapped by bombings in her home country, and so on in a total of five accounts nesting each inside the other like those fabulous matryoshka dolls which make so lovable a metaphor. Samatar varies the vocabularies, styles, and prejudices of her narrators so deftly that they truly are different people living inside and beside her, their worlds as complete as those of novels even though the story is very short. It’s not until Sagal’s ‘Refutation’ that the Land of Witches begins to seem unreal, even though she is refuting the man who refuted Arta’s first-person account. Sagal’s ‘Refutation’ is so fearful, fragmented, frustrated—she must flee her war-torn country but can’t so much as leave her house—that I wonder whether the ensuing section, in which a band of travelers seeks the Land of Witches using Sagal’s writings as a guide, is but a fantasy of Sagal’s, so desperate is she (like Arta) for escape. That said, Arta’s account is so rich in detail, in immediacy, grounded in its own almost Borgesian metaphysics, that you cannot not imagine yourself right there beside her.

In the Land of Witches: “The smallest child can roll time into a ball and chase it down the stairs or fashion it into elaborate paper chains. In the pastry shops, they drizzle time over the cakes.”

First published in The Offing, 2017 and available to read here; collected in Tender, Small Beer, 2017

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