Djinn by Russell Banks – short story review

Recap: a man is sent to Gbandeh by his company. The first time everything goes well, he gets into a routine of hanging out at a particular cafe, until one of the locals, one of the many “mad men” who live there, comes up to him one day and acts as if he knows him. And the narrator can’t shake the feeling that maybe he does. Soon, the owner of the bar comes over, chases the mad man (whose name is Djinn) away. The narrator quickly leaves and doesn’t return for the rest of his stay in that country.  15 months later, his company sends him back and he quickly falls back into his previous routine. Of course, Djinn shows up again. This time, however, Djinn scales the side of a building and is shot and killed by a plain clothes policeman. This greatly upsets the narrator who later ends up scaling the same building. Another plainclothes policeman is there, draws his gun and tells the narrator to come down, though the policeman now calls the narrator Djinn. The narrator successfully scrambles up the rest of the side of the building and onto the roof, the cop puts away his gun, and everything returns to normal. The story ends with the Narrator/Djinn on the roof of the building, watching the night sky move towards the morning, and the stars disappear. At the end the Narrator/Djinn tells he is “alone.”

A djinn is “In Muslim legend, a spirit often capable of assuming human or animal form and exercising supernatural influence over people.” Going with this definition, we can make a fair assumption of why the crazy man was called this. We also get an idea of why the narrator was referred to as this out of the blue. Also, it fits the strange compulsion that overtook him to climb the building and put himself at risk of being shot – his description of what propelled him could fit very well with the idea of being influenced by a spirit.

At the same time, this is also the closest the narrator comes to truly bridging the gap between himself and locals. While he moves about on their streets, he has a solid working relationship with the people his company employs and who he is training, he doesn’t truly belong to the community until he makes himself one of the mad men.

By becoming one of the madmen, or one of the djinn (as it appears this might be the common term the locals use for all crazy people), the narrator also attains a certain anonymity. Until one of the djinn goes out of their way to draw attention to themselves, such as climbing buildings, the locals don’t notice them. The narrator does, and he often seems perturbed throughout the story when the original Djinn wanders into the cafe and, literally, isn’t noticed by the locals.. So while he becomes closer to the locals on one hand, he also makes himself less visible to them. And the narrator realizes this at the end of the story, realizing that, sitting on the roof, he is “alone,” and may have been alone the entire time. By becoming a djinn, he is pulled away from the curtains he allows to shade him from the reality of his foreignness. While he can go to the cafe every day, while the bartender remembers his name and what he drinks, while the locals don’t pay any special attention to him, he still doesn’t fit there, he doesn’t belong. This only becomes apparent after his transformation.

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