FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Temptations of Morocco, Redux

by CHARLES R. LARSON

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, cover-african-shoreavoiding 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: clarson@american.edu.

 

More articles by:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

November 21, 2017
Gregory Elich
What is Behind the Military Coup in Zimbabwe?
Louisa Willcox
Rising Grizzly Bear Deaths Raise Red Flag About Delisting
David Macaray
My Encounter With Charles Manson
Patrick Cockburn
The Greatest Threats to the Middle East are Jared Kushner and Mohamed bin Salman
James Rothenberg
We All Know the Rich Don’t Need Tax Cuts
Elizabeth Keyes
Let There be a Benign Reason For Someone to be Crawling Through My Window at 3AM!
L. Ali Khan
The Merchant of Weapons
Thomas Knapp
How to Stop a Rogue President From Ordering a Nuclear First Strike
Lee Ballinger
Trump v. Marshawn Lynch
Michael Eisenscher
Donald Trump, Congress, and War with North Korea
Tom H. Hastings
Reckless
Franklin Lamb
Will Lebanon’s Economy Be Crippled?
Linn Washington Jr.
Forced Anthem Adherence Antithetical to Justice
Nicolas J S Davies
Why Do Civilians Become Combatants In Wars Against America?
November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Patrick Bond
Zimbabwe Witnessing an Elite Transition as Economic Meltdown Looms
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail