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Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s exquisite, but sparse, narrative, The African Shore, posits a number of identity questions for a handful of characters, all of them intersecting with one another but also (and perhaps more importantly) with their geographical locations. First, there’s a Moroccan teenager, named Hamsa, on the outskirts of Tangier, who herds sheep but has dreams of upward mobility, perhaps even international intrigue. Then there’s a Colombian young man, probably in his late twenties, stranded in Tangier because he has lost his passport. And finally, there’s Julie, a young French woman, about the same age as the Colombian. She’s an archaeologist, whose work takes her back and forth between France and Morocco.
The Moroccan setting, mostly in Tangier, comes ready loaded for Rey Rosa, who—according to the notes at the back of the volume—years ago was a disciple of Paul Bowles, who first translated Rey Rosa’s stories into English. The two were close for many years, and after Bowles’ death, Rey Rosa became the much older man’s literary executor. Similarities with Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (1949) abound but, since the primary setting for The African Shore is Morocco, but there are also connections between Rey Rosa’s novel and several works by the country’s novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, especially Leaving Tangier (2006).
In Rey Rosa’s novel, Morocco (i.e., Tangier) retains the stereotypic playground for expats that it has been in Western literature for many years. Sexual openness and drugs, with easy availability—all of this juxtaposed against tradition and superstition, especially for people in the country. Hamsa is lured into watching for the smugglers in the sea, which means keeping awake at night. “He was already thinking of the various ways he knew to fight off sleep, like eating red ants or the dirt of an ant hill, drinking water with lice, or wearing an amulet made from an owl’s eye.” That owl’s eye will become important in the plot as the story subsequently unfolds. “Everyone knew that owls don’t sleep at night and that they can see in the dark. This was why, when someone wanted to stay awake all night, it was a good idea to catch an owl and pull out its eye. Some people boiled the eyes in the water and ate them, or you could make an amulet with one of the eyes and wear it on your chest to keep off sleep.”
There is ambiguity about whether the young Colombian has lost his passport or intentionally left it somewhere. Information about his past and a lengthy relationship with a common law wife suggest that he is on the run, avoiding commitments (including his job in Colombia) and that waiting for a new passport to arrive provides him with some time to think about what he intends to do next, whether he will return to Colombia. In the meantime, he’s running out of money, living off the good will of others, getting high on kif, drinking to excess, and searching for sexual partners (prostitutes and expatriates). That sexual exploration connects him to Julie, leading us to wonder if it is archaeology or sex that has taken her away from France.
Then there’s one more “character,” an owl the Colombian buys on the street, moving the bird along with him from hotel to hotel. In his rather ludicrous wandering, the Colombian is connected to others by the bird, including the male lover of the Colombian Counsel, who wants to purchase the bird. There’s a scene where a thug tries to steal the owl (in its cage), involving a lengthy chase on the streets, and finally the bird connects the Colombian to Julie. I mention this sequence of events because the Colombian is a rather passive character, mostly pushed around by others, until a final scene when he has to act to save his life. Even after that, the bird is stolen by Hamsa, and we can only conclude what he intends to do with it, though there is still one final link-up—this time with Julie and Hamsa, with the bird playing a significant part in their tenuous relationship.
The story is elliptical, often more suggestive than dramatic. The North African setting (including Gibraltar) is as vivid and as enervating as the writings of Rey Rosa’s mentor. I’ve been a fan of Bowles and Rey Rosa for years, especially the latter’s stories. It’s a pleasure to read this longer narrative (his only novel), skillfully translated by Jeffrey Gray. The African Shore can be read quickly, in one sitting, so when you ask for more, you’ll experience the pleasures of Rey Rosa’s equally rewarding short stories.
Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s The African Shore
Trans. by Jeffrey Gray
Yale University Press, 146 pp., $13.00
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.