A Memoir Disguised as a Novel

By Geoff Wisner

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Harper Perennial, which reissued A Life Full of Holes in 2008, describes it on the cover as “the first novel ever written in the Arabic dialect Moghrebi.” Yet there is more than a little doubt as to whether it is a novel at all.

A Life Full of Holes was told to Paul Bowles in Moghrebi by a young man named Larbi Layachi, over the course of several months. Bowles recorded and translated each episode, refraining as far as possible from editorial interference.

“Apart from the exceptions mentioned and the few passages whose intelligibility depended upon some elaboration,” he wrote in an introduction, “the procedure followed was that once the material was on tape, it was considered to be final and inalterable.”

The book that resulted is so good—so clear, involving, and coherent—that it seems wrong to refer to Layachi as “illiterate.” But as poet and critic Vijay Seshadri notes in his foreword, “A Life Full of Holes doesn’t read like a novel; it reads like the truth.” And in his autobiography Without Stopping, Bowles admits as much.

About this time I had a communication from a magazine called Second Coming, asking for a manuscript. It occurred to me that I might take one of the anecdotes told me by Larbi, the guard at Merkala, and translate it for them. I asked Larbi to record his recollections of jail. When the piece was translated into English, I sent it off to Second Coming…. He then went back to his early childhood and recounted a section of that, which Evergreen Review printed. Soon we were working almost every day. On the basis of the sections they had seen, Grove Press contracted to publish a book. At some point Richard Seaver had the idea of presenting the volume as a novel rather than as nonfiction, so that it would be eligible for a prize offered each year by an international group of publishers, of which Grove was a member.

A Life Full of Holes made its appearance behind two veils. The book was published under the pseudonym Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, and the narrator uses another name. But once behind the veils, the story does indeed read like the truth.

In the chapter “The Wire,” the episode with which he began his collaboration with Bowles, Layachi describes his most significant adventure outside the law, for which he pays severely. With a friend named Moreno, he breaks into an abandoned warehouse and takes out some rolls of copper wire, intending to sell them. They are caught almost immediately, and while in jail Layachi is beaten by a guard for telling a government inspector there is not enough soap.

Yet even in these conditions, Layachi keeps his humanity, befriending and protecting an old Jewish prisoner.

In the morning after the prisoners had gone to work, the men from Mrrakch stayed behind because they had not been given work clothes. At breakfast that Jew had no sugar or anything. I made him a glass of tea and gave it to him. After that he got his clothes and went out to work. When he came back at noon he told me: This work I’m doing is too much for me. It’s going to kill me. I told him: Be patient. Where have they put you?

In the quarry where Messaoud is, he said.

I’ll talk with him when I see him, and say a word for you. I’ll give him a pack or two. Maybe he’ll keep away from you.

Many thanks, he said. May Allah repay you.

Like Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone,  this is the story of a young man struggling for survival against poverty and mistreatment. But compared to the violent, amoral Mohamed Choukri, Layachi is honest, self-sacrificing, and a bit of a prude (he passes lightly over the details of his sexual encounters). Hired as a shepherd, he works for months even though all his pay is sent to his selfish and abusive stepfather. Even when he comes into some extra money, he dutifully turns it over.

Under his pseudonym, Layachi continued his new life as an author, publishing books including Yesterday and Today and The Jealous Lover before his death in 1986. But it is A Life Full of Holes that has proven to be his lasting legacy.


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