Leaving Tangier is published by Arcadia Books at £7.99
Saturday, 16 May 2009
'I Am Just A Writer': Tahar Ben Jelloun in London
To the Institut Francais in London to hear the Moroccan novelist, Tahar Ben Jelloun, being interviewed by The Independent's literary editor, Boyd Tonkin about his latest novel to be translated (in French he's two books ahead of us). There were some jokes about the Englishing of Partir as Leaving Tangier – the Anglo-Saxons generally needing things to be laid on with a trowel (in this case through the name-check of a tourist destination) rather than putting up with the spare toughness of Partir. It's a novel about emigration set in the mid 1990s and couldn't be more relevant to these displaced, people-trafficked times. Tahar Ben Jelloun wryly observed that Moroccans wistfully stared at the lights of Spain, 14 kilometres away across the sea but he doubted that anyone from Spain gazed longingly in the other direction. The leading character of the novel, Azel, is a young Moroccan who sells his soul and body to get to Spain, away from a country that seems to offer him nothing. The author is unsparing in his candour about the shortcomings of Morocco in general and the Moroccan male in particular (he thinks it is the women who are its salvation) but admitted he had been criticised for "revealing" (he used the French verb dévoiler which has a nice extra nuance) too much in that regard but the European reader will learn a lot from this book. He also said that Europeans anxious about population movements in their direction might consider investing in Morocco so that people didn't have to leave. Tonkin asked if James Joyce had been a model as a writer and Tahar Ben Jelloun said that although when he was in prison and banned from reading and had asked his brother to smuggle in the fattest paperback he could find (which turned out to be a Livres de Poche translation of Ulysses) he felt Joyce was from a different world. At question time he was asked whether he saw himself as a Moroccan who happened to write in French and therefore part of "post-colonial literature" or a French writer. He smiled his charming smile and broke into English for the first time, giving his translator a rest: "I am just a writer".