I first read Mohamed Choukri’s memoir For Bread Alone when I was working on A Basket of Leaves. I considered using it as one of the books I discussed for Morocco, but before I had read very far I stopped considering it.
Recently I thought I would take another look at For Bread Alone and think about including it in an anthology of African memoirs that I’m working on. As I leafed through it, the language looked clean and solid, but it took only a few paragraphs to see that this is a book with a high potential for giving offense. To select a relatively innocuous section would not only be difficult but would seriously misrepresent the whole.
For Bread Alonewas translated by Paul Bowles, and in an introduction he gives a quick sketch of Choukri’s life. “Choukri grew up under conditions of poverty excessive even for Morocco. Eight of his brothers and sisters died of malnutrition and neglect. Another brother was killed outright by Choukri’s father in an access of hunger and desperation.”
That killing is described in the first chapter, as follows.
I see my father walking toward the bed, a wild light in his eyes. No one can run away from the craziness in his eyes or get out of the way of his octopus hands. He twists the small head furiously. Blood pours out of the mouth. I run outdoors and hear him stopping my mother’s screams with kicks in the face. I hid and waited for the end of the battle.
What follows is an unremitting account of a struggle for survival in which Choukri will do almost anything “for bread alone.” As a boy and a young man, Choukri drinks and smokes kif, uses and lives with hookers, fights with a razor, and even finds a way to have sex with a tree. He tries to eat dead chickens and fish that he finds, and when someone drops a sandwich into seawater thick with sewage, he dives in after it.
Paul Bowles explains that he translated For Bread Alone using a different method from his other translations.
Because I have translated several books from the Arabic I want to make a clear differentiation between the earlier volumes and the present work. The other books were spoken onto tape and the words were in the colloquial Arabic called Moghrebi. For Bread Alone is a manuscript, written in classical Arabic, a language I do not know. The author had to reduce it first to Moroccan Arabic for me. Then we used Spanish and French for ascertaining shades of meaning. Although exact, the translation is far from literal.
It has been my experience that the illiterate, not having learned to classify what goes into his memory, remembers everything…. It seems almost a stroke of good luck that Choukri’s encounter with the written word should have come so late, for by then his habits of thought were already fully formed; the educative process did not modify them. As a writer, then, he is in an enviable position, even though he paid a high price for it in suffering.
Despite its unremitting grittiness, For Bread Alone has the virtues of force, directness, and honesty. It is a good book. But as Gertrude Stein told Hemingway about one of his stories, it is inaccrochable, “like a picture that a painter paints and then he cannot hang it when he has a show and nobody will buy it because they cannot hang it either.”