For the Books on France 2014 reading challenge I continue to revel in the wealth of Francophone literature for a little longer, but from the long past Middle Ages I’m returning to the present. Moreover, the book that I’m reviewing today has a strongly Maghrebian touch which it owes both to the author from Morocco and to its expatriate protagonist. A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun is a short novel about one of many foreign workers from Northern Africa who came to France in the 1960s to have a better life and who, probably out of fear to lose their identity, cherish and cultivate the cultural heritage of their places of origin, notably their Muslim creed, with more fervour than they might if they had stayed in their home countries.
Tahar Ben Jelloun (الطاهر بن جلون) was born in Fes, French Morocco, in December 1944. After graduation he studied philosophy in Rabat and worked as a philosophy teacher until 1971, the year when he published his first volume of poems. Following the arabisation of education in his country, he moved to France where he wrote articles for Le Monde, studied Social Psychiatry and later worked as psychotherapist. At the same time he kept publishing poems and fiction, but fame only came in 1985 with the release of The Sand Child (L’Enfant de Sable). The most important novels of the prolific francophone author are The Sacred Night (La Nuit Sacrée: 1987), The Blinding Absence of Light (Cette aveuglante absence de lumière: 2001), and A Palace in the Old Village (Au pays: 2009). His latest published novel is L’ablation (2014; Ablation). Tahar Ben Jelloun lives in Tangier, Morocco, with his family.
The story of A Palace in the Old Village revolves around Mohammed Ben Abdallah who was born and raised in a poor village in Southern Morocco where he was taught to recite the suras of the Koran and where he also married his sixteen-year-old cousin. As a young man he went to France to join the masses of foreign workers who were recruited by a thriving automobile industry during the years of the post-war economic miracle in Europe. He meant to earn money abroad for a while and then return home, but in the end he fetched his wife and stayed for forty years, thus his entire working life. During all those years Mohammed clang to his inherited culture and didn’t allow anything French to touch his soul. He warded off the “Lafrance”-infection as he called it and even refused to speak French although he understood it at least. He remained a Muslim, a father and a Moroccan through and through. At the same time he was humble and peaceful disapproving of all kinds of fanaticism, violence and racism. He tried to pass on his values, his traditions and his language to his five children, but they were born in France, attended French schools and refused their Arabic heritage in favour of a “normal” life as French citizens. They only spoke French, chose the professions they wanted, lived where they wanted, married whom they wanted, and Rachid even changed his name into Richard to mask his origins. They don’t obey him, but he is proud of them despite all. Only his youngest daughter Rekya who hasn’t yet finished school and Nabile, his mentally handicapped nephew and foster-son, are still living with Mohammed and his wife, when his turn comes to retire from his job. All of a sudden he realizes that the big flat in Yvelines has turned empty and that he lost his family to the foreign land. He dreads that he may die alone in a country that isn’t his own and that nobody will take care of his grave in Lalla França. So he sets out for his old village in Morocco to build the big house of his dreams that will bring back together his family and restore the traditional order.
All in all there doesn’t happen much in A Palace in the Old Village because it’s just the quiet story of an average man without exceptional qualities, nor great ambitions, nor an adventurous spirit. He’s an illiterate immigrant like many others in his generation, an everyman devoted to hard work and raising his children who in the end resorts to the impossible dream of making his family return to Morocco with him although for all except his wife the country is just a place where they spent their school summer holidays. The tone of the novel is melancholic or resigned as would be the account of a real person looking back on forty years away from home and finding himself estranged from his children because his soul never truly took root in France. In several flashbacks the third-person narrator tells memorable episodes from Mohammed’s past as well as his reflections on questions of religion, society and family. Extremism, racism and violence are beyond him whose idea of the world is based upon a strong belief in the mercy of Allah, a soft heart and a humble mind. Tahar Ben Jelloun portrayed Mohammed with great care and skill moulding an entirely credible character who feels made of flesh and blood from beginning to end. He succeeded in showing the isolation that results from the refusal or incapability of adapting to a different cultural environment in a very clear and unpretentious language full of powerful images. The German translation titled Zurückkehren was a pleasure to read and I hope that the English one is just as convincing.
For me A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun was a very touching read which allowed me a first-hand insight into the background and the mind of a Muslim immigrant who refuses all change of attitude and thus remains a stranger for decades. It helps to understand a little better why the communities of foreign workers tend to create parallel universes of their own within the “native” society. For this reason and for its literary quality I warmly recommend the novel.