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Laila Lalami's "Secret Son"

Dickens in Morocco, Sort Of

by CHARLES R. LARSON

If Charles Dickens had visited Morocco, he might have written Secret Son, the tortured story of the twenty-year separation of a father and his son, set to the relevant social issues of Morocco today: young people with diminished expectations; class, coincidence, intrigue, and slum life. Any connections to the great Victorian novelist end there. Moreover, I was almost always more aware of the social and political issues confronting Laila Lalami’s characters than their humanity.

Though the novel’s protagonist, Youssef El Mekki, grew up in a slum and has managed to gain admission to a university, he realizes that his prospects are extremely limited. Few jobs will be available for him and his friends when they graduate. Protests at the university lead to police brutality. Youssef considers escaping to Europe but understands that he would have to do so illegally. His mother is hard-working and attentive to his needs and his aspirations. Additionally, she has told him that his father died while he was still an infant.

Then coincidence turns Youssef’s life upside-down. (Think of Pip in Great Expectations.) His father is very much alive, though he has never known of his son’s existence. Youssef’s parents were never married. His mother has lied to him, clearly to prevent the pain that she has foreseen will result if father and son are united. Youssef ignores her warnings, almost renounces her, and takes up residence in one of his father’s opulent flats.

The contrast between the two worlds is stark. Poverty and slum life are replaced by excess–more money than Youssef has even known, expensive clothes, and young women who are suddenly interested in him because of his opportunities. His father is a cut-throat capitalist; Youssef becomes the son he has always wanted, since his legitimate wife has born him only a daughter. Interestingly, that daughter, Amal, is every bit as rebellious as her half-brother. Her life of privilege has culminated in university education in the United States. Though half-brother and half-sister never meet, Lalami draws a number of significant parallels between the two of them. Then, to everyone’s surprise, Youssef’s father attempts—disastrously—to assemble a new “family” with both of his children and his wife.

What is perhaps too inevitable happens: Youssef is not accepted by his father’s wife, but tossed back to his earlier state, living with his mother in the slum. These events occur at roughly the mid-point of the story. Mentioning these events in no way preempts the rather amazing, if somewhat unbelievable, ending of Lalami’s novel. Youssef is paralyzed by the sudden turn of events, close to a mental breakdown, when the author twists her plot in a new direction: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
The seed for this shift was planted much earlier. Like another recent Moroccan novel, Leaving Tangier, by Tahar Ben Jelloun, Secret Son provides a fair bit of detail recording the political unrest in the country, especially the way it impacts on the lives of young men and women who yearn for a better life than their country is able to provide. Moreover, the fundamentalists know that young men, especially, are vulnerable, that they can be used to bring forth rapid political change if the disaffected can be convinced to join their cause.

Lalami can’t resist. She brings in George Bush’s poster-boy torturers at Abu Ghraib, one of the darkest moments in America’s recent history. After a catalog of unresolved tensions between the West and Middle Eastern nations, the narrative includes the following paragraph: “The last series of photographs were from Iraq. Men, naked and barefoot, without faces or names, their hands cuffed to beds, rails, and doors, standing in their own urine or sitting in their own feces. Their heads were covered with black sandbags or with pink, frilly women’s underwear. One stood on a box, wires taped to his hands, his arms spread out in a crucificial pose. Another was made to bend, as if he were in ruku’, while a soldier sat on a chair in front of him. Men were piled like stones in pyramids of varying heights or dragged on a leash like animals.”

I do not object to references to Abu Ghraib in Secret Son. America needs to earn back the trust of much of the world. Rather, I believe that social and the personal dimensions of Lalami’s novel (so often unified in Dickens’ works) do not quite mesh. The story–which has had strong narrative power–suddenly shifts when characters begin to act inconsistently with the way they were presented earlier.

Still, Lalami has impressive talent. A collection of her short stories published three years ago was widely praised. Like so many writers who begin with short stories and then move on to the longer narrative, she has yet to master the novel’s form.

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.