Translated by Emma Ramadan
This long-awaited English-language debut from Morocco’s most prominent contemporary writer won the Prix Gouncourt de Nouvelles, France’s most prestigious literary award, for best story collection. Laroui uses surrealism, laugh-out-loud humor, and profound compassion across a variety of literary styles to highlight the absurdity of the human condition, exploring the realities of life in a world where everything is foreign.
“Why does man distance himself from his home? Why does he make himself into a foreigner?”
It’s foreign land to you, of course, but to everyone else you are the outsider. As an American in Japan it’s a feeling I know well.
“[In France] the trees would have had familiar names, the trees and the animals and the household items at the supermarket; over there he wouldn’t have needed to consult the dictionary to buy a mop.”
(For me it was baking yeast.)
Laroui covers it all – the embarrassment of not knowing social signals, the delight in discovering a second name for everything, the frustration at always being seen as other, no matter what you do.
“Just as at the zoo, the tiger seems to be the equal of the porcupine, they are fed in the same way, they are loved the same and the placard in front of the enclosure… so, what about the placard? It’s the same for all: tiger, porcupine, or bonobo – but Anna, you’re outside of the enclosure….”
The foreign angle is what made me pick up this short story collection but I was happy to find that there is much, much more in Laroui’s writing. First of all, it’s funny. Laugh out loud on the bus funny. My favorite stories have a narrator spinning tales at a cafe, with a peanut gallery at the ready to put in their own two cents.
“‘We are,’ said Hamid (he paused), ‘we are (he swallowed a sip of coffee), we are (he put down his cup) an inventive people.’
“He had put the word in italics. So we examined it closely. Then we demanded, silent, the proof (we, too, know how to use italics).”
Often there’s a linguistic hook that makes the telling just as fun as the contents. Some stories are absurd, like tall tales that get tossed around a bar at 1 am. There’s truth in there – you can feel it – but after so many drinks you can’t be bothered to tease out the facts. And who wants to, when the story stands so well on its own? An ambassador that has his pants (and only his pants) stolen before an important meeting. Swimming in sand when water proves scarce. Getting revenge on your high school philosophy teacher for making you think about death. Add a layer of deep insights and beautiful language (wonderfully translated by Ramadan) and it’s easy to see why this book has won awards.
The stories range from insightful to funny, deep to absurd, and I was delighted the whole way. After much searching I have finally, finally, found a short story writer that I love.
Thanks to Deep Vellum and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.