Nathalie Azoulai ‘The Spectators’


On the 27th of November 1967, in all of the other houses in France, activities picked up again shortly after the conference. The television is switched off, people go out shopping, get on. For most of the French, nothing serious has has happened besides a few statements about foreign affairs which don’t concern them directly. England, the East, Quebec. Nobody makes the connection between a speech and everyday life, nobody understands the implications, considers them as more than particles in suspension particles that won’t fall and that will end up disappearing. But they know that it has already happened. Over there. They know that a speech by a head of state can be transformed in a few months, without being noticed, into measures, into farewells, into suitcases filled in haste.***


The starting point of Nathalie Azoulai’s ‘Spectators is a seemingly anodyne speech given in November 1967 by the General De Gaulle to the nation, we assist with an unnamed family, a thirteen year old boy his parents and his baby sister and we slowly pick up the tension from the boys viewpoint as we understand that they are exiles from an unnamed Middle Eastern country as described in the opening quote. The story slowly unravels, distorted by the boys vision, as told by a third person narrator, with his father rarely we get to know his mother, obsessed by the Cinema and the great actresses of Hollywood’s golden age through her discussions with Maria her Portuguese seamstress. She tells her of the different actresses and the background stories gleaned from her ancient copies of ‘Photoplay’ such as of Vera Miles, Hitchcock’s first choice to play in Vertigo and who would have had a very different career had she not fallen pregnant and been replaced by Kim Novak. Or of Cora who starred in 1946 in The Postman Always knocks twice, Cora is of course Lana Turner. She tells Maria of the marvellous dresses they wore on screen as she shows her photos of the dresses and asks Maria to make them. In line with this his mother had not wanted the television the had bought just before De Gaulle’s speech:


On the way back she rants, sighs, doesn’t stop saying that she hates television, that’s it’s letting the devil in the house, she prefers the cinema. From now on she’ll see the films without having to leave the home, says his father, in her nightgown if she wants to. And why not in slippers ? A film should be watched dressed to go out and with make up on she replies sharply. She will never accept to be so lowered before all of these impeccable actresses.***


During De Gaulle’s speech there is a question of a war, probably the six day war and his father tells his mother that if they win the war he will buy her the dress of her dreams. Later Pepito, Maria’s son asks him if they are Arabs to which he replies no, Pepito, who doesn’t understands then insists asking, but you do come from an Arab country to which he answers yes. We then slowly learn of their forced exile, and how in the two suitcases they were allowed to take she had tried to take her entire collection of Photoplay. Finally of the doctor she had met before leaving who she nicknamed Flynn. It was then no surprise that the boy tried to understand things:


There you are, for us France is finished! His father lets out.
Don’t say such foolish things, says his mother.
How do you leave a country you love so much but where you are so hated? he asks.
And there, it’s as if the television was suddenly turned off. His two parents turn towards him and give him such as if to turn him to stone.
Taking no notice, he continues: when do you know when it’s time to leave? you know because you’ve already done it.***


This is the story of a boy trying to understand his families complicated life, he had himself been born in France and we finish by understanding his mother’s obsessions, an enigmatic book.

First Published in French as “Les Spectateurs” in 2018 by P.O.L.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sur le trajet de retour elle peste, soupire, ne cesse de dire qu’elle déteste la télévision, que c’est le diable dans la maison, qu’elle préfère le cinéma. Elle verra désormais les films sans avoir à sortir de chez elle, dit son père, en chemise de nuit même si elle veut. Et pourquoi pas en chaussons? Un film ça se regarde habillée et maquillée, cinglé-t-elle. Jamais elle ne supportera d’être ainsi diminuée face à toutes ces actrices pimpantes.

Le 27 novembre 1967, dans toutes les autres maisons de France, les activités reprennent dans la minute qui suit la fin de conférence. On éteint la télévision, on sort faire des courses, on vaque. Pour la plupart des Français, rien ne s’est produit de grave que quelques déclarations sur des dossiers de politique étrangère qui ne les concernent pas directement. L’Angleterre, l’orient, le Québec. Personne ne fait le lien entre un discours et la vie de tous les jours, personne ne capte les incidences, ne les considère autrement que comme des particules en suspension qui ne retomberont pas et finiront par disparaître. Mais eux savent que c’est déjà arrivé. Là-bas. Ils savent qu’un discours de chef d’État peut se transformer en quelques mois et sans qu’on y prenne garde, en mesures, en adieu et en valises remplies à la hâte.

Voilà, pour nous, c’est fini la France! lâche son père.
Ne dis pas de bêtises, dit sa mère.
Comment quitter un pays qu’on aime tant mais où on vous hait tant? demande-t-il.
Et là, c’est comme si la télévision s’éteignait d’un seul coup. Ses deux parents se tournent vers lui et lui lancent un regard qui cherche à le pétrifier sur place.
Sans se troubler, il reprend: quand est-ce qu’on sait qu’on doit partir? Vous savez, puisque vous l’avez déjà fait.

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Jeniffer Egan ‘Manhattan Beach’


He eyed Kerrigan, searching for the weakness. Money wasn’t his object, or he’d have demanded it before singing. What, then? In a mick it was usually booze,but Kerrigan hadn’t the look of a lush. Nor was there much propensity for violence in those scrappy limbs, though he’d likely fight hard in self-defense. Women? Micks were famously prudish, faithful to their blowsy wives—perhaps recalling the bonny colleens they’d been before the assembly line of children, or from fear of their drunken, bellicose priests.


Anna’s Father, Eddie Kerrigan was a trusted bag carrier for Irish organised crime around Manhattan beach, he could be trusted not to be noticed as he carried money from one place to the next. The book opens at a pivotal moment in his life as, on a Sunday, he meets up with Dexter Styles, looking to make the next step up and work for the Italians proposing, as we learn later in the book, to watch Styles’ different operations, not being noticed, and spot the people that were cheating him. Styles eyed up Kerrigan to try to understand his motives as illustrated in the opening quote. Kerrigan had gone to Styles’ house with his daughter Anna who was only eight years old at the time and we see what is happening in this adult world through Anna’s eyes.

In early 1930’s America Anna was living at home with her parents and her seriously crippled sister, where their only fun in life was the occasional visits from her aunt, Brianne whose stories only Anna believed:


“And the trumpeter?” he asked. “Oh, he’s a real lover boy. Curls like Rudy Vallee.” She would need money again soon enough. Brianne was long past her dancing days, and even then her chief resource had always been her beaus. But fewer men were flush now, and a girl with bags under her eyes and a boozy roll at the waist was less likely to land one. Eddie found a way to give his sister money whenever she asked, even if it meant borrowing from the shylock. He dreaded what she might become otherwise.


And then one day Eddie disappears for good. Fast forward and Anna is working for the war effort at Manhattan beach where she dreams of becoming a diver working on war ships and when she finally gets to meet Lieutenant Axel who could make her wishes come true she comes up full against anti female prejudice:


“You’re interested,” Lieutenant Axel said, gazing up at Anna as she stood before his desk. He’d not risen when the marine had shown her into his office. “Yes, sir,” she said. “Extremely interested.” “And what gave you the impression that diving would be interesting?” She hesitated, not entirely sure. “I’ve watched divers on the barge,” she said. “From Pier C. At lunchtime. And after my shift.” She followed each utterance with a pause, awaiting some indication that he had understood. “You’ve watched the divers at lunchtime,” he finally said. As this was not a question, and as her words, reverberated through Lieutenant Axel, had a way of sounding ridiculous,


Anna, whilst working at the docks was one of the few women who were not married, not being trusted entirely by the ‘marrieds’, she meets up with Nell, another single woman who the one day disappears and Anna the finds her at a night club where she finds that single women working on the docks can find other ways easier ways to get by:


“I haven’t any job at all,” Nell said. “Unless you count trying to look smashing all the time so Hammond doesn’t toss me out.” They seated themselves among a group who occupied several tables near the dance floor. Anna noticed Marco and reddened when he looked in her direction. But he was watching Nell. “Would he really throw you out?” Anna whispered. “Hammond is a pig,” Nell said, which dumbfounded Anna, Hammond himself being inches away, his arm around Nell’s shoulders. Anna averted her gaze as if she’d been guilty of an indiscretion. “Then why do you—” “Money,” Nell said brightly. “He’s loaded with money, and he pays for everything. He lives in an eight-bedroom mansion in Rye, New York, with his wife and four children. He’ll never leave them—I was nuts to think he would. Isn’t that right, darling,” she called to Hammond. “Anna worked with me at the Naval Yard. Hammond doesn’t like to hear about that. He thinks girls shouldn’t work at all; they should just dream up new ways to entrance him.”


It is then at this club that she meets Dexter Styles, for the first time since that day at his house on Manhattan beach, using a false name so that he doesn’t link her to Eddie. As she better gets to know Styles, her knew life diving and her quest for her disappeared father lead her and Styles to the truth about her father. In parallel Styles is asked to take Badger from Chicago under his wing and is amazed at his naivety:


Dexter marveled at his insolence. It made him grasp something that had eluded him until that instant: Badger thought he was protected. He’d mistaken Mr. Q.’ s helping hand for immunity of some kind—apparently unaware that Mr. Q.’ s own brother had vanished in the course of his ascent, along with at least two cousins. This misapprehension explained Badger’s exaggerated deference toward Dexter, the twist of mockery inside it.


But then the wheel turns full circle and called late at night to a boathouse by one of Mr. Q.’s sons, Dexter finds himself in the same position with Badger as Eddie had with him all those years ago.

There are twists in this story and so I don’t think there was a spoiler yet here in Jennifer piece of historical fiction. An interesting and well researched story.

First Published in English as “Manhattan Beach” in 2017 by Scribner.

Olga Grjasnowa ‘ City of Jasmine’


Hammoudi is welcomed by his own rowdy group, although he had actually intended to take a taxi straight to his hotel. He’d like a little peace and quiet–two nights of sleeping alone, far away from Claire and from his family waiting for him in Deir ez-Zor. A brief time out, just for himself. That’s why he didn’t tell his friends in Damascus his arrival time. They interpreted his silence as forgetfulness and simply looked up the landing time online. Now they wrap him in hugs and kiss him on the cheeks. Hammoudi is loaded into a car, complete with his heavy case full of gifts.


Grajasnowa’s study of the slow almost imperceptible slide of normal society into chaos and beyond begins with the temporary return of Hammoudi to Syria as illustrated in the opening quote. After studying in Paris and being accepted in a prestigious Hospital as a plastic surgeon, Hammoudi need only reurn home to renew his passport, a formality, to take up the position and to live with his Jewish girlfriend, herself a surgeon in Paris. Onc home the complications begin:


‘You can have your passport back but you’re not allowed to leave the country.’ ‘Pardon?’ Hammoudi responds. ‘The Security Service has some concerns about letting you leave the country again. Please contact the relevant authority.’ ‘But the Syrian embassy assured me I could just get my passport renewed. It wasn’t a big deal, they told me.’ ‘Where was that?’ ‘In Paris.’ ‘Then go and see my colleagues in Paris.’ ‘But I’d have to leave the country first!’ ‘I’m not going to get into a discussion.’ His face devoid of expression, the civil servant flips open the next file.


We follow Hammoudi’s life as he slowly realises he won’t be leaving in the near future and in order to obtain an equivalency document to practice in Syria he must sit an exam, at the first sitting he answers all of the questions and fails, at the second sitting he pays the expected bribe and steadfastly refuses to answer a single question and of course passes.

In parallel we follow the story of Amal, the daughter of a rich father who makes money working for the Assad regime, amid a general but timid uprising of the people to obtain basic rites. No one in Syria is dupe, they all know of the brutality of the Assad regime:


Amal got a degree in English literature but books weren’t enough for her, so one day she auditioned for the prestigious Institute of Dramatic Arts. All that seems long ago now. Fear has settled in like a parasite building a nest inside her ribs. Amal knows exactly what might happen to her but she doesn’t know when or whether it will come about, and it’s this uncertainty that makes her tremble. Too many people around her have been arrested or tortured or have simply disappeared, which amounts to the same thing.


The situation in Syria slowly deteriorates, as the Regime has a file on everybody, with absolutely anybody being a potential informant, Amal is arrested once for being present at a demonstration where Grajasnowa describes the arrest and detention process of a totalitarian state; as her father tells her, he can bribe her captors to get her release but there are so many different organisations capable of arresting her that he would have to know that she had been arrested and then know who held her in order to pay.

Amal leaves Syria for Jordan whilst Hammoudi’s town of Deir ez-Zor finds itself a rebel centre. As the regime then tries to bomb the town and its people off of the map, Hammoudi, at great risk to his life, runs an underground surgery where he saves some lives but loses many. As Daesh first appear then absorb mant of the warring factions, Hammoudi who has repeatedly, under pressure, operated on and saved leaders of the oposition finds himself a target of Daesh and flees at the last minute with help from the retreating forces and decides to try to find his way to Europe.

The story then moves on to the tragedy of immigration as he must first cross over into Europe and then move within Europe, he reflects on the situation he discovers in the camps:


Illegal immigration is strictly regulated at the camp but not by the European governments, there’s a hierarchy of refugees. Syrians usually arrive in whole families and in boats that are slightly better and not quite as overcrowded they’re from the former middle class and they have small financial reserves that have enabled them to get to Europe. Pakistanis and Afghans cross the Mediterranean in extremely unseaworthy boats, in some cases so tightly packed that they don’t even have space to sit. The Afghans are also the most prepared for the journey, their rucksacks are very well packed and they often have instant access to dry shoes and socks. Syrians though often don’t have a plan, they don’t know what’s happening to them. The preparedness of its emigrants is still the best indicator of the state of a society. At the bottom of the hierarchy are the people from central and Northern Africa.


As the final tragedy approaches we learn from Hammoudi how much he has been marked by his experience as when interrogated by the Europeans to decide on his status, he is able to quote the exact number of lives he was unable to save.

This story successfully transmits the idea of inevitability, if you live there , no matter who you are, there is no way out. As Amal finally realises, all those years of studying and working to become someone have been lost forever.

First Published in German as “Gott ist nicht Schuchtern” in 2017 by Aufbau Verlag.
Translated into English as City of Jasmine by Katy Derbyshire and published in 2019 by Oneword Publications.

Sam Byers ‘Perfidious Albion’


Its only right that we should try to share what we have with those who have less. But what we have in Britain now is a society that asks those who work to share their earnings with those that scrounge; those who have grown up here to share their hard-fought space with those that have just arrived; and those who deserve their place to share it with those who merely envy it.


Sam Buyers’ Perfidious Albion is a dark satire on post Brexit Britain, his story takes place in Edmunsbury, a small town in southeastern Britain where at the outset the town is trying to redefine itself, the story opens at a party at Jacques DeCoverley’s where we meet a varying group of people that have left London and are trying to be someone in the opinion-sphere, from DeCoverley who writes about pavements to Robert, a left leaning blogger and his girlfriend Jess, the main protagonist of the book, the narrator observes her situation, for example:


Jess popped to the toilet to tweet. Back in the room, an assortment of indistinct men – bearded and earnest and flushed with credentials – talked at her or for her, but never quite to her.


Jess, after having been seriously abused online had set up multiple false identities for blogging such as Byron Stroud who had become very influential within the opinion-sphere, partly because he only wrote about the opinion-sphere and Julia Benjamin, a feminist, who had become the main online critic of Jess’ boyfriend Robert.

The Larchwood estate, a failing housing project, worth much more empty than with its current residents is being emptied and then Buyers Paints a none too flattering picture of the opportunistic right wing party, England Always, and its local representative Hugo Bennington with the opening quote representing one of his initial quotes. Through the events within the book, Buyers by way of satire, deconstructs the use of fear and through this the linked subjects of violence and race by opportunistic right-wing political parties, for instance the analysis of audience response by his assistant Teddy:


‘That spike is just a huge upsurge up people calling me a twat the moment I appeared on television.’
‘Isn’t it amazing?’
‘How is that amazing?’
‘Because it’s free publicity. You can’t buy this kind of amplification, Hugo.’
‘But it’s negative publicity.’
‘No such thing. Negative publicity is like antimatter. It’s an urban myth.’
‘I don’t think antimatter is an urban myth Teddy.’
‘Alright then, show me some antimatter.’
‘Well, obviously I can’t show you some antimatter, because it’s—’
‘Right. If you can’t show it to me, it doesn’t exist. You see what I’m saying? It might very well actually exist, but to all intents and purposes, it doesn’t.’


There is a tentacular secretive tech firm in Edmunsbury which are at the centre of much of the intrigue and for which Buyers tells us something of Jess’ and of course probably his own view of modern corruption:


Jess wasn’t sure when the architectural love affair with glass was going to come to an end but whenever it was it wouldn’t be soon enough. As politics and commerce had become murkier, so the buildings in which vital transactions took place had become ever more resplendently clear, as if recognizing that in the flattened homogeneity of the present all actions, both benign and malicious, now looked the same: a squint at a screen, a series of keystrokes, the choreography of global espionnage now no different to the microritual of online shopping.


And finally in the build up there is Robert, a none too successful blogger for an online newsletter trying to get by and being manoeuvred by a mixture between his own ambition to exist and his editor:


‘People are being lied to. People are being intimidated. Are you trying to tell me people don’t want to read about—’
‘They want to read about things that are cool, funny or evil. That’s the holy trinity.’


The powder keg is then ready and waiting for the spark, which is provided by an unfortunate tweet as Trina, a coloured worker at the techfirm when watching Bennington can’t listen anymore and tweets #whitemalegenocide. lol. This is the spark that leads to the chain of events where the true satire really gets underway with the instrumentalisation of this tweet.

A very much up to date biting satire following in the tradition of Tom Sharp.

First Published in English as “Perfidious Albion” in 2018 by Faber & Faber.

Agnès Desarthe ‘The Chance of their Lifetimes’


She speaks English. At least she had learned it at her Lycée. But today she realises, now that they will be here for a year, maybe, in a country where it is spoken, that she knows it very little. She muses that there is the same difference between the language that she thought she knew and that spoken here as between a middle aged woman as she wakes in her worn nightdress, her feet in her husbands oversized slippers, and the same woman with her face made up, her hair arranged and wearing high heels. She asks herself which of these two women resembles the English she had once learnt in her lycée.***


The story opens with Hector, Sylvie and their fourteen year old adolescent son Lester flying from Paris to North Carolina where Hector has obtained a teaching post for one year, which could maybe be prolonged at a local university. The story told in the third person concentrates on Sylvie, and tells of Lester and Hector as observed by Sylvie. Sylvie had married Hector, quite a bit younger than her, and from a relatively well off bourgeois family where the wife was not expected to work, in moving from Paris and her life to North Carolina where she knows no one, Sylvie becomes introspective, firstly thinking about her life to date, playing on her age relative to Lester’s:


She has more or less decided to be her son’s grandmother. It wasn’t her idea, but that of a woman on the bus….”Hey young man”, the woman had said, leaning towards Lester, you are lucky to have such a young granny”….Of course Sylvie didn’t lie to the administration, nor on the forms to be filled out for the school or the town hall. It was only during informal encounters, at the park, at shows, with people she didn’t know and wouldn’t meet again,that she used this version of their relationship. She didn’t refer to Lester as “my son”, she said “my little one” or “my boy.”***


And then on her imagined difficulty in communicating with the world around her, as illustrated in the opening quote. We follow Sylvie as she initially gets lost in the streets in which she lives where she has no reference points and as she eventually finds a means of expression through a pottery class. In parallel her charismatic son gathers around himself all of the marginal pupils at his school that are excluded from the usual groups and who follow him almost like a religious leader without any of their, much to occupied parents noticing. And her womanising husband doing much the same with the female teachers at the faculty. All of this to the background of the Paris terrorist attacks.

There are two awakening calls, the first as the plumber unblocks the washing machine pipes to find they are blocked by a large number of intertwined condoms and in trying to ease her suspicions tells her that they’re maybe her son’s. As she realises what this discovery means, she feels something agreeable as it explains a number of incongruous observations, such as the cutlery not being in its usual place. The second is when the varying neighbours, noticing that their children can no longer be reached on their cell phones, discover the influence of Lester on their children and take the children’s explanations of being touched by Lester literally.

This is a slow moving introspective study of Sylvie and how the choices she has made in life have shaped her and of her hidden inner strength.

First Published in French as “La chance de leur vie” in 2018 by L’Éditions de l’Olivier.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Elle parle anglais. Du moins a-t-elle appris cette langue au lycée. Mais elle se rend compte aujourd’hui, à présent qu’elle s’installe pour un an, peut-être, dans un pays où cet idiome circule, qu’elle ne la connaît que très peu. Elle songe qu’il y a la même différence entre la langue qu’elle croyait maîtriser et celle que l’on parle ici, qu’entre une femme plus toute jeune, au réveil, vêtue d’une chemise de nuit usée, les pieds dans les savates trop grandes de son mari, et la même, maquillée, coiffée et chaussée d’escarpins. Elle se demande à laquelle de ces deux femmes ressemble l’anglais appris autrefois au lycée.

Elle a plus ou moins décide d’être la grande-mère de son fils. L’idée n’est venue d’elle, mais d’une femme dans le bus….”dis donc mon bonhomme”, avait lancé la dame en se penchant vers Lester, tu en as de la chance d’avoir une mamie aussi jeune”….Bien entendue, Sylvie ne mentait pas à l’administration, ni sur les fiches à remplir pour l’école ou la mairie. C’était seulement lors des rencontres informelles, au square, au spectacle, face à des inconnus qu’elle ne reverrait jamais, qu’elle avait recours à cette version de leur filiation. Elle ne désignait pas Lester en disant “mon fils”, elle disait “mon petit” ou “mon garçon.”

Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam ‘Aracadie’


On the dance floor, Daniel opens his eyes wide, frantically trying to attract my attention. he must have noticed Maureen’s hand dissapearing into the front of my jacket.
-Do you know him?
-yeah we live together.
-He’s your flatmate?
-No
How can I explain things to Maureen in between Sean Paul and Drake? That Daniel isn’t a flatmate, or a brother, not even really a friend?
-He’s your botfriend?
He could have been. If I’d followed Arcady’s insistence, we would have slept together, Nellie and I. Alone at first and then together with Arcady afterwards. That was the idea. Anyway, one of the ideas that sprouted from the fertile brain of my mentor.***


Bayamack-Tan’s story of a sect seen from the inside as completely normal by Farah who arrived at Liberty house at the age of six with her parents and her grandmother, fleeing modernity and its electro-magnetic waves which left her mother in a permanent state of weakness and were welcomed by Arcady. On top of this story of a free love community living in the hills in south eastern France and comprising weakened people from the margins of society and rich old ladies who basically subsidised the community, is grafted the story of Farah’s adolescence as she discovers and comes to live with her own story, discovering her MRKH syndrome “This condition causes the vagina and uterus to be underdeveloped or absent, although external genitalia are normal”

We follow Farah as she discovers sex with Arcady at the age of fifteen for one summer before the events which cause her to leave Liberty house. Life in Liberty house is built around the community with ideals of sharing, until a migrant hides in their grounds and steels some of their food, when Farah discovers the limits of their ideals. This is the event which pushes Farah and her friend Daniel to leave the community, there are no young adults in the community, they all choose to leave when the reach the age of about sixteen.

Farah, ill prepared for the outside world meets Maureen who comes to terms with her sexuality, but as the opening quote shows explaining Liberty house to the outside world would be no easy thing. How does life at Liberty House then develop? Do things end well? Well you would need to read the book but expect no surprises.

The book was well received, but I found it a hard read.

First Published in French as “Arcadie” in 2018 by P.O.L.
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Sur la piste, Daniel ouvre des yeux ronds et m’adresse des signaux frénétiques. Il a dû remarquer que la main de Maureen a disparu dans l’échancrure de mon smoking
-Tu le connais?
-ouais. On habite ensemble.
-C’est ton coloc?
-Non
Comment expliquer ça à Maureen entre Sean Paul et Drake? Que Daniel n’est ni un coloc, ni un frère, ni même à proprement parler un ami?
-c’est ton mec?
Il aurait pu l’être. Si J’avais suivi les objurgations d’Arcady, nous aurions couché ensemble, Nellie et moi. Seuls d’abord et avec Arcady ensuite. C’était ça l’idée. Enfin, l’une des idées qui jaillissent du cerveau fertile de mon mentor.

Tahar Ben Jelloun ‘Marriage of Pleasure’


For once, this evening I’m going to tell you a story of love, an overwhelming impossible love, lived fully until their last breathe by each of these characters. But as you will see, behind this miraculous story there is hate, contempt, wickedness and cruelty. Its normal, that’s how people are. I preferred you should know so that nothing would surprise you.***


In the city of Fès in Morocco, each spring, a storyteller sets up his equipment and waits for a crowd to form, this is how Ben Jelloun’s tale of three generations of a Marocain family begins, and then to further warn us and thus distance us from the substance of the story , he tells if of its contents as illustrated in the opening quote. The story then pulls us in. The storyteller, Goya, tells us of a pious and upright merchant in the 1940’s, Amin, whose father and grandfather before him, have for generations made the two week trip to Dakar in Senegal by train then wagon and finally by camel where they passed several months negotiating spices and had contracted pleasure marriages whilst there. Amin who wished to respect the rules of Islam then consults the Moulay Ahmad, a professor of theology:


Moulay Ahmad reassured him. He quoted verse 24 of the sourate “women” : “you have the obligation to use your wealth to marry honourably and not to live in common law. It is a requirement that you hand over the arranged dowry to she with whom you have entered into marriage…” in other words, it is legal for a man away from home for long periods, to enter into a marriage of “pleasure”, “of enjoyment”, “of well being”, which guarantees the wife a dowry and the respect of the one she marries. God established this to fight against prostitution.***


This is the the basis of the story, each time Amin goes to Senegal he contracts a “pleasure marriage” with Nabou, a young Peul, with whom he discovers a sexual freedom and satisfaction he has never known with his first “white” wife the Lalla Fatma. After one trip he cannot imagine leaving her and decides to bring her back to Fès as his second wife. Goya in several parts of the story lets us understand how difficult this may be, he tells us of the slave market in Fès that was active until a few decades prior to the story, of the way the peasants from the land when they fall on hard times are used as unpaid cooks and helpers by the méchants of Fès, of stories of other African wives that are brought back to Morocco and used as sex slaves and how even the well meaning men have no stay over the way the first, “white” wife runs the house. As if to confirm this as Lalla Fatma says:


You’ve brought into this house, misfortune, evil and discord, you want to marry a servant, a negress whose skin colour betrays the darkness of her soul, but does she even have a soul? I wonder. And finally you’re a disappointment, do whatever you will! I’ll take care of my children’s education, I’ll keep them away from that wicked, stinking thing. You’re neither the first nor the last to risk a family for a negress allied to Satan. God is great.***


Nabou then gives birth to twins, one black and one white, Hassan and Houcine. From the treatment of Nabou and that of her sons we follow the differences in racial treatment of her two sons, of Houcine’s integration and of Hassan’s difficulties. Discrimination seem to improve with time over the decades until the wheel comes full circle and faced with the mass migration across Marocco of Africans towards Europe, the attitude to these darker skinned Africans hardens until one day Nabou’s grandson and Hassan’s son, Salim, is rounded up with other people of the same skin colour and deported to Senegal where after some time discovering his grandmother’s roots he sets off on foot for Europe.

First Published in French as “Le Marriage de Plaisir” in 2016 by Gallimard
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Une fois n’est pas coutume, ce soir je m’en vais vous conter une histoire d’amour, un amour fou et impossible pourtant vécu jusqu’au dernier souffle par chacun de ses personnages. Mais comme vous le verrez, derrière cette histoire miraculeuse, il y a aussi beaucoup de haine et de mépris, de méchanceté et de cruauté. C’est normal. L’homme est ainsi. Je préférais que vous le sachiez pour que vous ne vous étonniez de rien.

…Moulay Ahmad le rassura. Il lui cita le verset 24 de la sourate “Les femmes” : “… il vous est loisible d’utiliser vos biens pour vous marier honnêtement et non pour vivre en concubinage. C’est une obligation pour vous de remettre la dot convenue à celle avec laquelle vous aurez consommé le mariage…” Autrement dit, il est légal, pour un homme absent de son foyer pour de longues périodes, de contracter un mariage “de plaisir”, “de jouissance”, “de bien-être”, qui garantit à la femme une dot et le respect de celui qui l’a épousée. Dieu a institué cela pour lutter contre la prostitution.

Tu as fait entrer dans cette maison le malheur, le péché et la discorde, tu veux épouser une domestique, une négresse dont la couleur de peau trahit sa noirceur d’âme, mais a-t-elle une âme? Je me le demande enfin tu es décevant fais ce que tu veux moi je m’occuperai de l’éducation de mes enfants je les tiendrai loin de cette chose mal faisant, mal odorant, tu es ni le premier ni le dernier à mettre en péril toute une famille pour une négresse alliée de satan. Dieu est grand.