..."where they make music when my mind is tired but they stay inside me..." Mohammed, the hero of Tahar Ben Jelloun's elegiac and moving story of a simple man from a small village in Morocco, feels completely lost in the fast moving, modern world. Clad in his grey work overalls, all his life in France appears to him as nothing but grey. " I love colors and I keep that to myself. I can't make my children understand it, but I don't even try, don't feel like talking, explaining myself..."
Back in 1962, the young peasant was persuaded to leave his remote village and join the immigrant labour force in France. Mohammed had to change "from one time to another, one life to another". 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 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." 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. While concentrating on the specific, the author's messages can be applied to similar circumstances elsewhere.
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..." 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: 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 local Berber language, has never felt motivated 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 or unwillingness to comprehend his children, nevertheless encourages us 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 some sympathy for Mohammed's efforts to rebuild his life and for his taciturn, acquiescent and submissive wife.
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 did well in school and was fortunate to pursue his studies in Paris after his release from prison in Morocco. He is a prolific and award winning author of many novels and other writings. He writes exclusively in French - a language he feels is better suited than Arabic for the social topics he wants to address in his fiction. Tahar Ben Jelloun's affection for the Moroccan landscape and life in the village is reflected in his use of rich and poetic imagery. The fine line between reality and mysticism becomes blurred whenever Mohammed reaches the village. For me, these passages 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. [Friederike Knabe]