Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated by Linda Coverdale
Penguin ($15)

by Brooke Horvath

Although Tahar Ben Jelloun left Morocco for France in 1971, his imagination continues to haunt its villages and conjure its dusty beauty. His most recent novels, The Last Friend and Leaving Tangier, have explored the life of the immigrant, but with A Palace in the Old Village, the sixty-five-year-old Ben Jelloun has turned from young Moroccans trying to find new lives elsewhere to the older character of Mohammed, who has retired after forty years on an assembly line in an automobile plant in Yvelines. Just west of Paris, and once home to Émile Zola and Maurice Ravel, Yvelines is now a tourist destination boasting one of France’s better golf courses. Mohammed gives no indication of knowing any of this, though; how could such things matter to him, whose world extends no further than his now-gone job, his children, Islam, and the Moroccan village he returns to visit each year?

Mohammed has always considered himself an indispensible employee and conscientious parent. Job and children gave purpose his days, but now the job is gone and the children, leaving one by one for lives of their own, now largely ignore him (similarly, Mohammed mostly ignores his wife, who has little to offer that he needs). Worse, les enfants are thoroughly Frenchified, lost to the enticements of the West and absolutely indifferent to Morocco, the land from which they never came. Morocco, however, comes to obsess their father as his emptying house and emptier days leave him adrift. Wondering whether life in France has been worth what he lost by leaving Morocco, Mohammed begins to dream of returning to his old village and building there a house seductive enough to woo his children back to him. Back home, Mohammed will also be able to free himself of the émigré’s timidity and the abrasiveness of French culture, something to which forty years’ residence have neither reconciled nor accustomed him.

Throughout much of the novel, this comparison of life in France to life in Morocco holds center stage, and Mohammed seems a bit of a Saul Bellow character as, chapter by chapter, Ben Jelloun advances the plot just enough to provide Mohammed the opportunity to mull over some new cultural conundrum or disappointment. “LaFrance is a wonderful country,” Mohammed muses toward the end of his story, “because it takes good care of its sick. Here [in Morocco] you’re better off never setting foot in a hospital.” On the other hand, Mohammed recalls the thousands of elderly French left at home to die during the heat wave of 2003 while their children were off on vacation: “Why? I don’t understand! It was just because.” As may be inevitable for a novelist more or less at home in two cultures, each of which at times leaves him uneasy, Ben Jelloun can find fault in both. The French may have loosened family ties to the point of abandoning one another, but in Morocco the importance of those ties is not given voice: “I’ve never complimented my girls,” Mohammed confesses, “No, that we don’t do.”

When Mohammed finally returns to Morocco to build his “palace,” the realism that has governed the narrative transforms into the magical as Mohammed learns in what ways one can and cannot go home again. The house he builds—wired for unavailable electricity, fully plumbed in case running water ever finds its way to the village—is a fiasco. As Mohammed perseveres, hoping that if he builds it his children will come, what comes instead is some “black thing” circling the house at night, fissures in the walls, portentous dreams, and death. The house, Ben Jelloun writes, “was as big as Mohammed’s heart,” but it ultimately leaves him in tears.

These stories of filial indifference, of the fate of dreams deferred, are familiar. However, Linda Coverdale’s translation, as fine as any she has produced, makes them seem fresh and new. She ably conveys Ben Jelloun’s desire not only to speak to western readers about what we have in common with Mohammed (his affection for a nephew with Down Syndrome, his frustration with his car insurance) but also to reveal to us the extent to which Mohammed’s story—even if we are aging and awkward and fresh off the boat—is inevitably different from our own.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2011 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2011