CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 12. . . .November 22, 2013
The Camel in the Sun is the story of a camel that spends his life trudging through the desert in the burning sun delivering goods for his owner, Halim. The merchant is oblivious to the basic needs of the animal, rarely allowing him time to rest, while shouting at the camel to run so he can reach their destination and sell his merchandise as quickly as possible. Over time, the camel becomes increasingly tired, sad, and lonely until one day when a prophet notices the camel standing in the hot sun tied to a post while Halim sleeps in the shade. The prophet provides a source of comfort for the camel, permitting the creature to cry on his shoulder. Tears filter into Halim’s dreams, and it is at this point the merchant is finally able to empathize with the camel’s profound sadness. “Can’t you see that the camel is sad?" said the prophet. The man could find no words.
Interestingly, Ondaatje does not give the camel a name, instead referring to the camel as “it” or “the camel”. At first impression, this might be perceived as a means to depersonalize the camel who is undoubtedly seen through the eyes of the owner as a beast of burden or as an animal that merely serves a transport function. However, as the story unfolds, the camel’s struggles and stoicism strike a chord, “its” sadness pervasive, and the reader cannot help but be caught up in an emotional tidal wave.
In the author’s note, Ondaatje mentions this story comes from a hadith, or “an account of a prophet’s words or actions passed from generation to generation.” As such, the hadith is poignant and moving for, as Ondaatje notes, “the camel’s owner is like most of us who have – somewhere in life – left a camel in the sun, whatever that ‘camel’ may be.” Through the struggle of the camel and the apparent lack of attention or consideration of its owner, readers can ponder if they have gone about daily life without empathy for those in difficult circumstances with whom they share their everyday existence. As in so many situations, it is through awareness and additional insight that wrongs can be righted and disparities altered. A parallel between both the owner and the camel may also be drawn as both share similar burdens of hard work and loneliness with only the former able to determine when, and if, rest or nourishment is possible.
There is a definite aura of solemnity about this book that can be gleaned just by looking at the front cover. The mood is enhanced as the reader observes the barren landscape with a lone rider on a camel set in varying shades of gold and brown. Once inside the book, page after page is a feast for the eyes as Wolfsgruber skilfully mixes soft tones of brown, gold, orange, and green to create the exotic desert setting. The colours add to the weightiness of the subject matter and, coupled with the illustrations depicting the pair’s journey, depict for the reader the pain of the animal with no relief in sight.
If anyone is looking for a book that deals with the importance of empathy and, in the process, packs an emotional punch, The Camel in the Sun is a perfect choice.
Harriet Minuk is a librarian at Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, MB.
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