By Geoff Wisner
Most readers, I think, know the Moroccan writer Tahar ben Jelloun from his novels The Sand Child (my review) and its sequel The Sacred Night. Those books are marked by a prose style that is rich yet never overdone, and a slightly old-fashioned voice. They are the very illustration of control and authority in storytelling.
Ben Jelloun's new novel Leaving Tangier, translated from the French by Linda Coverdale, is very different. A contemporary story of young Moroccans desperate to start new lives in Spain, it is highly contemporary, sexually explicit, and (considering its author) rather untidy in its narrative strategy as well as in the moral compromises it describes.
Though the novel shifts viewpoints repeatedly as it moves from one short chapter to the next, the plot centers on a restless young man named Azel, who like other unemployed and underemployed Moroccans, spends his days in the cafes of Tangier, gazing across the straits to the shores of Spain. But though Spain is so close, getting there and staying there isn't easy. Some drown during the crossing, and others are rounded up by Spanish authorities soon after they arrive.
Azel has paid a fixer to get him into Spain, and when the passage is canceled he is never repaid. His drunken abuse of the man earns him a savage beating from the fixer's thugs, and he is rescued at the last minute by a Spaniard named Miguel Lopez, a rich and lonely art collector who appreciates young men.
Azel is straight, but he reaches an accommodation with Miguel that soon has him living in luxury in Barcelona. Yet while Miguel develops real feelings for Azel, going so far as to make a genuine conversion to Islam, Azel is slowly torn apart by self-disgust and alienation.
Brief yet moving, Leaving Tangier is sometimes messy but contains passages that convey the aching conflict in the hearts of those who love their country but cannot make a life there.
In Tangier, in the winter, the Café Hafa becomes an observatory for dreams and their aftermath. Cats from the cemetery, the terraces, and the chief communal bread oven of the Marshan district gather round the café as if to watch the play unfolding there in silence, and fooling nobody. Long pipes of kif pass from table to table while glasses of mint tea grow cold, enticing bees that eventually tumble in, a matter of indifference to customers long since lost to the limbo of hashish and tinseled reverie.