20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2022), Algeria, Author, Book review, Fiction, Flamingo, literary fiction, Morocco, Paul Bowles, Publisher, Setting

‘The Sheltering Sky’ by Paul Bowles

Fiction – paperback; Flamingo Modern Classic; 285 pages; 1993.

First published in 1949, The Sheltering Sky was Paul Bowles‘ (1910-1999) debut novel.

It’s a rather enigmatic tale about a young American couple travelling through French North Africa after the Second World War, but what begins as a typical story (albeit in an atypical setting) of a marriage on the rocks morphs into something else entirely.

Part horror, part suspense (part WTF is going on?), it’s a chilling tale about strangers in a strange land and the unforeseen fates that can await the naive traveller.

On the move

The story goes something like this. Port and Kit Moresby*, a sophisticated American couple from New York, are exploring Morocco and Algeria with their friend Tunner. They don’t have a proper itinerary, they simply move from place to place when they feel like a change of scenery because, as Port puts it, they are not tourists but travellers:

The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveller, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to the other. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home. Before the war, it had been Europe and the Near East, during the war the West Indies and South America. And she had accompanied him without reiterating her complaints too often or too bitterly.

But while the trio take their time moving around the country —  this Google Map I found online helpfully charts their journey — there are tensions at play.

In the opening chapters, for instance, Kit spends a night with a local prostitute (a pattern that repeats throughout the novel) and puts himself in danger of being robbed or mugged.

Later, when the trio meet a young Australian traveller, Eric, and his mother, Mrs Lyle, a travel writer (whose vile views on Arabs and Jews make for uncomfortable reading), staying at the same hotel, they are offered a ride to Boucif by car. Port accepts, but Kit and Tunner go by train because there’s not enough room for all of them in the vehicle. It is during this long train journey that Tunner makes a pass at his friend, setting into motion a convoluted love triangle in which Kit constantly plays off her lover with her husband.

Port, who has his suspicions about his wife’s trysts, engineers it so that Eric gives Tunner a lift to the next city on the pretext that Kit and Port will catch him up in a few days. This is where things get tricky. Port’s passport is stolen and it’s dangerous to be a foreigner with no identifying papers. It’s also dangerous to be on the road during an outbreak of meningitis, and when Port falls sick on a long bus journey the sense of danger becomes even more heightened.

Strong sense of place

All the while the Saharan landscape and her ancient cities form an exotic backdrop in which the characters play out their petty dramas which quickly escalate to become life or death situations.

The writing is eloquent, spare and incisive, featuring authentic, animated dialogue and rich, vivid descriptions of place. Here’s how Bowles describes Aïn Krorfa, in Algeria, for instance:

Aïn Krorfa was beginning to waken from its daily sun-drugged stupor. Behind the fort, which stood near the mosque on a high rocky hill that rose in the very middle of the town, the streets became informal, there were vestiges of the original haphazard design of the native quarter. In the stalls, whose angry lamps had already begun to gutter and flare, in the open cafes where the hashish smoke hung in the air, even in the dust of the hidden palm-bordered lanes, men squatted, fanning little fires, bringing their tin vessels of water to boil, making their tea, drinking it.

But despite the wide-open spaces of the desert and the abundance of sunshine and stark light, the mood of the book soon becomes oppressive, heavy, fearful. The characters, especially Kit, behave in unexpected, not always sensible, ways, and it’s difficult to predict what might happen next.

I’ve refrained from going into the plot in too much detail, but it does take a dark turn somewhere around the halfway point when Port develops a terrible fever and the hotel in which they planned to stay refuses to take them in. Kit is suddenly forced to take action, to look after her sick husband and try to find medical help without drawing the ire of the authorities who won’t look favourably on foreigners without ID.

The final part of the story slides into a kind of farce in the sense that I found it a little hard to believe, but on the whole, The Sheltering Sky is a strange yet beguiling read — and one I won’t forget in a hurry.

* Call me childish, but there’s something funny about naming a character Port Moresby when we all know that’s the name of the capital city of Papua New Guinea. LOL.

This is my 2nd book for #20booksofsummer 2022 edition. I bought it secondhand for $11.50 from Elizabeth’s Bookshop here in Fremantle in August 2020. I had previously read his 1966 novel Up Above the World which I had described as a “masterpiece of suspense writing”.

Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Morocco, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tommy Wieringa

‘The Death of Murat Idrissi’ by Tommy Wieringa

Fiction – hardcover; Scribe; 102 pages; 2019. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

This is the kind of slim book that you think won’t take very long to read, but I found Tommy Wieringa’s short, sharp novella, The Death of Murat Idrissi, so shocking in places I could only read it in intermittent bursts. I’ve been mentally processing it ever since.

It was longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, which is how it came to my attention, but it was this review on Dolce Bellezza that made me really want to read it. When I found it in the library I couldn’t resist borrowing it.

A fable for our times, it tells the story of two young women from the Netherlands, on holiday in Morocco, who agree — somewhat reluctantly, it has to be said — to help smuggle a young man across the border into Europe. The man’s name is Murat Idrissi and, sadly, he dies en route — hence the title of the book.

The women, abandoned by the men who set up the arrangement, have to figure out what to do with the body. They have next to no money — for food, for fuel, for overnight accommodation — and must make a perilous journey from the Spanish coast to their home in Amsterdam in their (expensive) hire car without alerting the authorities to their predicament.

A compelling read

This is a compelling read, gruesome in places, but Wieringa prevents the narrative from sliding into farce by the clever use of flashbacks, showing how the women got involved in the smuggling operation, detailing the fun aspects of their holiday beforehand and then contrasting this with Murat’s life of poverty. It’s easy to see how the guilt of a Western upbringing may have lead them to this situation.

But there’s an additional “twist” — for want of a better word — because the women, Ilham and Thouraya, are the children of African immigrants themselves and have spent their lives being regarded as Other. Visiting Morocco on holiday was supposed to be a way of discovering their roots, but they’re shocked — perhaps naively so — to find that their usual freedom as young Europeans isn’t available here. There are “rules” for women, and even if they’re European born, they still look like the locals.

This confusion over identity is a key component of the novella and Wieringa asks some important questions about what makes us who we are: is it our skin colour, our country of birth, our belief system, our education, our cultural traditions, our language, our parentage?

She stares out of the window. The trees flash by. It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept. It depresses her, the quick prayers whenever death is mentioned, when there are portents. All those dos and don’ts. The countless fears her mother covers up with invocations. The things you’re not allowed to say, not allowed to think, not allowed to do. Her mother is a farmwoman — she went to the airport on the back of a donkey, as Thouraya puts it; she has a certain control over the new language. She is fairly independent, but there is no use trying to combat her primitive ideas — her reply is always that her daughter is rude, and that rude girls end up badly.

It’s written in prose that mixes long, elegant sentences with short, fragmentary ones, and the descriptions — of the landscapes, of the sights seen on the road — are vivid and beautiful:

They take the new toll road to Tangier; there’s almost no traffic. The sun comes up in a wash of peach-coloured light. They pass greenhouses and plantations, the fields full of sweet, round watermelons, ready for the harvest. The melons rest nakedly beside their furrows, like eggs the earth has pressed out.

Not much is resolved in the ending, which means I’ve been thinking about Ilham and Thouraya ever since I reached the final page. What happened to them when they got back to Amsterdam? What stories have they told themselves about this incident? How have they reconciled it in their minds? And what of Murat’s family back home in Morocco? Do they know he’s dead, or do they think he’s just been too busy to get in touch?

It would make a terrific book club read for that reason — although there’s much more to discuss than that open-ended final chapter.

As you can probably tell, I thought The Death of Murat Idrissi was a really powerful book. Free from judgement and free from sentiment, it’s about the haves and the have nots and the risks people are prepared to take to bridge the gulf between them. It will stay with me for a long time.

Abdelilah Hamdouchi, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hoopoe, Morocco, Publisher, Setting

‘Whitefly’ by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

Fiction – paperback; Hoopoe; 136 pages; 2016. Translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Smolin.

First published n 2000 as al-Dhubaba al-bayda by al-Muttaqi Brintira, Whitefly is the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English.

I bought it in Kinokuniya, in Dubai, earlier in the week, because I was looking for something “local” to read — or at least originally published in Arabic — and this seemingly fit the bill. (I love that the Dubai store has a whole section devoted to Arabic fiction, and another for Asian fiction, which makes the browsing experience so much more fulfilling if you’re looking for something in those areas of interest.)

Unfortunately, the book doesn’t have an “about the author” section, so I had to Google “Abdelilah Hamdouchi” to find our more about him. According to this article on Words Without Borders, he was born in  Morocco in 1958 and has written several police detective novels with a human rights bent. Whitefly is his third.

Detective story set in Morocco

Set in modern-day Morocco, the book introduces us to Detective Laafrit, a 40-year-old policeman, married with a young child, who is well respected by those he works with, including the Commissioner, who is of a higher rank but treats him as if their positions are reversed.

The story follows his investigation into the death of three young men, washed up dead on a local beach over the course of a couple of days. It’s believed the men are harraga (illegal immigrants) who have fallen overboard while trying to reach Spain.

When a fourth corpse washes up the case takes on a new dimension, for the man has been shot four times and it’s clear that the leather jacket he’s wearing has been put on him after he’s been killed.

Laafrit pins his hopes on finding the gun, because that will ultimately lead to the killer. (Guns are illegal in Morocco and very difficult to obtain.) He uses his underworld contacts to help him find the weapon and to find out more about the identities of the men. Did they all know each other? And, if they did, what is their connection? Why was one brutally murdered?

Atmospheric setting

The best bit about this novella is the setting. I’ve not really read anything set in Morocco before (apart from Nina Bawden’s A Woman of My Age, but that was simply about an English character on holiday there) and I found it fascinating to be thrust into unfamiliar territory. I had to do a lot of Googling to find out more about the tense relationships between Spain and Morocco over people smuggling, and to work out why the cities of Ceuta and Melilla were so controversial. Turns out they’re both Spanish territories on the African continent, sharing a border with Morocco, which makes it easier for Africans to enter Europe illegally.

I found out other things I didn’t know about Morocco, too, such as the fact that three million Moroccans live on tomatoes as their main food source.

The crime itself, which appears to be part of the dark shadowy world of people smuggling and illegal immigration, morphs into something else entirely (involving agriculture, food production and industrial espionage) — and I’m not sure it worked as well as it could have. It was certainly an intriguing concept, but I felt it could have been fleshed out a lot more than the 136 pages that this slim volume allowed.

And while I finished Whitefly with a sense of disappointment, I’m going to hunt out more books by Abdelilah Hamdouchi in due course because this novella, for all its faults, was an effortless read and one that evoked a strong Moroccan vibe I’m keen to experience again.

Africa, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Morocco, Nina Bawden, Publisher, Setting, Virago

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden

WomanOfMyAge

Fiction – paperback; Virago Modern Classics; 160 pages; 1992.

Until very recently I had Nina Bawden pegged as a children’s author. Then, while browsing BookMooch a week or so ago, I accidentally discovered she had a rather extensive back catalogue of adult fiction that I simply did not know about. I promptly acquired a rather battered copy of A Woman of My Age (Virago Modern Classic Number 366) and set about reading it.

First published in 1967, this short novel reminded me very much of Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark  in that it tells the story of one woman’s emotional journey — figuratively and physically — as she struggles to come to terms with growing older and finding her rightful place in the world.

From the outset it is clear that our narrator is not content:

I find this so difficult. When I look in the mirror — not to see if the grey roots are beginning to show before the next tinting, but in the same way I used to look at myself when I was seventeen, at what, whom and why — I remain, as I did then, cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my situation: I am Elizabeth Jourdelay, married to Richard, the mother of his two sons. I am, I am middle-aged. This is an embarrassment that has come upon me suddenly, taking me by surprise so that I don’t really believe it. Looking in the mirror I see the wrinkles, but perhaps tomorrow they will be gone and my skin will be smooth again. Though wrinkles are not important. The important thing is that I am in the middle of my life and I feel as I did when I was adolescent, that I do not know where to go from here.

Now, on holiday in Morocco with Richard, Elizabeth longs for the desert because her life was “crowded, cluttered up”. But the journey is far from the calm, peaceful one for which she longs. Alongside the heat, there are other English travellers with whom she must contend: the delightfully eccentric and elderly Mr and Mrs Hobbs, and the slightly vain, thrice-married Flora and her much younger lover, Adam.

While Elizabeth enjoys the Hobbs’ company, because they remind her of the parents she never had, she finds Flora irritating. Indeed, Flora had gone to Oxford with Richard, and there are suggestions that they pair may have been lovers in the distant past and that their accidental meeting in Fez may have been pre-arranged. These niggling suspicions eat away at Elizabeth, who finds herself analysing her own marriage with a man she barely knew when she married him, aged 20, some 18 years ago.

Her somewhat melancholy recollections of their life together are seamlessly interspersed with what is happening in the present time, as the couple travel from Fez to the barren uplands beyond the Atlas mountains. The reader soon begins to realise that Elizabeth has made far too many compromises in order that the marriage can work, and now, in a foreign country, the cracks in their relationship can no longer be smoothed over. The tension, some of it tragi-comical, builds and builds until it comes to a devastating head…

A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times, when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s “rules” and constraints. Raised by two spinster aunts, one of whom brought her up “to give too much importance to careers and causes and things of the mind”, Elizabeth finds marriage and motherhood constricting.

A highly political creature — “I was very unsure of myself except in matters of political opinion” — she longs to become a local councillor but Richard thought it a “dirty game and he could not understand how I could endure it” .

Later, when she raises the subject of getting a job, the response from her mother-in-law is crushing:

She said, first, ‘Do you really want one, dear? Richard and I thought you had settled so nicely’ — as if I was some sort of jelly — and then, ‘Well, if you really want to, I suppose it would be nice for you to earn some pin money.’

Unfortunately, it does not pan out as planned.

Perhaps it was stupid of me, but I had expected so much, if in a rather
a vague way, that the reality was a bitter shock: I was unqualified, I
had no degree, I wasn’t even trained as a secretary. It soon became
clear that nothing which came up to my expectations was open to me.
When I realised this, the walls seemed to close in. I became a gloomily
devoted mother.

There’s something very sad about Elizabeth reconciling her expectations with keeping her family happy, because it’s clear that her husband has not had to do the same thing. Of course, we only hear Elizabeth’s side of the story, but as the narrative progresses you begin to understand that Richard is not the saintly school teacher husband he purports to be.

And while Bawden deftly captures all the tensions and betrayals and compromises that married people make, she also does a nice line in setting the mood. Her descriptions of Morocco are particularly vivid.

The terrace of the casbah fell away down the hill, dovetailed into one another like the streets and courts of a medieval city, all enclosed in a wall of the same red earth. At one end there was a little tower where cranes were nesting. Beyond the wall was the palm-grove, a chess-board of different coloured grasses, and beyond the oasis, the flat, ochre colour of the desert. The air quivered, not just far in a heat haze, but close by me on the parapet, in a kind of vibrating brightness that hurt my eyes.

In fact, setting the book in Morocco is a clever touch, because it allows Elizabeth to compare the subjugation of women in North African societies with her own situation. Indeed, when Flora points out that “their men shut them up at home; even if you visit the house, the women don’t appear socially. Just to serve the food” the point seemingly goes over Elizabeth’s head, but it did not go over mine.

Having read my first Nina Bawden adult novel I’m keen to read the others — there’s certainly plenty to keep me occupied as you can see by this and this. Next on the rank is The Birds in the Trees or maybe I will try Afternoon of a Good Women, two books I mooched even before I’d come to the end of this one. If they are half as good as A Woman of My Age I am sure to be in for a treat.

Author, Book review, Debbie Taylor, Fiction, general, historical fiction, Morocco, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Fourth Queen’ by Debbie Taylor

FourthQueen

Fiction  – paperback; Penguin; 496 pages; 2004.

Debbie Taylor’s The Fourth Queen is a sanguine, sexy tale set in a harem in Morocco.

It’s based on the true story of Helen Gloag, who, fleeing the poverty of Scotland, finds herself on a ship bound for America. When the ship is captured by pirates, the young, inexperienced and prudish teenager is kidnapped and sold into slavery.

In the harem run by the cruel and charismatic Emperor Sidi Mohammed, Helen’s world is turned completely upside down. From a naive waif with little sexual experience she becomes the emperor’s fourth wife (hence the book’s title) and lives a life that must have been totally unimaginable for a western woman in the 18th century.

Taylor’s writing is accomplished and confident, if overly descriptive at times. She manages to convey the “richness” of Helen’s surrounds using lush and evocative language.

But the plot, which is a kind of murder-mystery revolving around the poisoning of several of the queens, is lacklustre and doesn’t justify devoting 496 pages to it.

All in all, it was a pleasant enough read but nothing too earth shattering.

If you have read M. R. Lovric’s Carnivale and enjoyed it, you will probably like The Fourth Queen, too.