A PALACE IN THE OLD VILLAGE by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Book Quote:

“Mohammed was afraid. Afraid of having to climb mountains, pyramids of stones. Afraid of tumbling into the ravine of the absurd, of having to face each of his children, over whom he had lost every scrap of authority.  Afraid of accepting a life in which he no longer controlled much of anything.  He lived through his routine, the long straight line that carried on regardless.”

Book Review:

Review by Friederike Knabe  (FEB 26, 2011)

In a palace in the old village Tahar Ben Jelloun tells the elegiac and moving story of a simple man from a small village in Morocco, who feels completely lost in the fast moving, modern world. Mohammed had to change “from one time to another, one life to another” when back in 1962, this young peasant was persuaded to leave his remote village in Morocco and join the immigrant labour force in France. Now forty years later, he is about to start his retirement and this new situation preoccupies and worries him deeply. From one moment to the next, it will end the years of daily routines which have made him feel safe, secure and needed. They have also protected him from reflecting on his life and its challenges: “Everything seemed difficult to him, complicated, and he knew he was not made for conflicts.” Why does he have to retire at all? It is “a trap,” a strange, “diabolical” invention! In this gently and simply told story, Tahar Ben Jelloun explores themes of home, immigration, faith, the social and cultural discrepancies between immigrants and their French surroundings, and last, but not least, the resultant mounting estrangement between parents and their children.

In his musings, much of it conveyed in direct voice, Mohammed recalls images of different stages in his life: his childhood, his marriage, the first ever sighting of the sea… all memories that he cherishes and contrasts with his life in France. It is his firm grounding in Islam, however, that has always guided his thinking and behaviour: “His touchstone for everything was Islam: My religion is my identity. I am Muslim before being a Moroccan, before being an immigrant.” Tahar Ben Jelloun delicately elucidates the intricate correlation between faith and reality in Mohammed’s life and, interestingly, he links it to the concept of “time.” When Mohammed was young, time was structured around the five daily prayers and the year around major festivals throughout the seasons. We, as readers, can easily perceive why, after decades of time-keeping through his work at an automobile plant, he feels completely lost in these early days of “tirement,” as he calls it. How can he fill time now and in France – “a place where he does not belong at all?”  Time stretches without structure, unless – Mohammed realizes – he takes on a new project and sets out planning it: he will build a house for the whole family in the old village… Surely, that will bring his children back to him and the traditional life, as it was before, can be rekindled.

A man like Mohammed, barely literate, who only speaks his Berber language, has never felt the need to make an effort to learn French beyond the basics. He can cite the Koran in Arabic, but cannot express an independent thought in this holy language. He has come to France to work, get paid and to return home to his village every summer and eventually for good; his emotional centre is only there. His five children, on the other hand, are growing up in the French environment and speak only French to him. The author, while seeing the world primarily through Mohammed’s eyes, such when he describes his hero’s attitude towards his wife and inability and unwillingness to comprehend his children, nevertheless encourages us as readers to see beyond Mohammed’s narrow and naïve interpretation of his surroundings and place his perspective into a broader context. And we, in turn, feel growing sympathy both for Mohammed’s efforts to rebuild his life and for his taciturn, acquiescent and submissive wife. Will he, once ensconced in his new project, convince the now grown children and their children to follow his plans?

Tahar Ben Jelloun, who also emigrated as a young man to France in 1971, is intimately familiar with the issues that face North African immigrants in France. Son of a village shopkeeper, he was fortunate to do well in school and was able to pursue his studies in Paris after his release from prison in Morocco. He is a prolific and much revered author of many novels and other writings. Despite his own education in Arabic, he writes exclusively in French – a language he feels is better suited to the social topics he wants to address in his fiction. As for his hero, Arabic for him is a sacred language which commands reverence and humility from those who use it. While completely at ease in the French environment, he stated in an interview with the Paris Review in 1989: “When I tell a story, I feel Moroccan and tell it like a Moroccan storyteller, with imagery and a construction that is not always realistic, but where poetry can reside.” His language in this novel fully reflects his intentions: his affection for the Moroccan landscape and life in the village shines through in rich and poetic imagery. The fine line between reality and mysticism becomes opaque. For me, these passages are add some of the most precious aspects in this touching account. “I tell a story in the hope that it will incite reflection, provoke thought.” That indeed he does with this insightful novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: Penguin; Original edition (January 25, 2011)
REVIEWER: Friederike Knabe
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? Not Yet
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Tahar Ben Jelloun (In French)
EXTRAS: Reading Guide
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:

The Last Friend

The Blinding Absence of Light

Bibliography:

Nonfiction:


February 26, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: France, Middle East, World Lit

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.