"Murray is the best kind of literary biographer" – The Financial Times.
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Winner of the 2015 Basil Bunting Award for poetry

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Tahar Ben Jelloun: Writing on Fire

The leading French-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun has always been unafraid of tackling contemporary political subjects in a way that British novelists always seem to find so difficult to do, terrified as they are of seeming "strident" or insufficiently circumspect. But his latest book, Par le feu [By Fire], just published, is a remarkably rapid response to the events of the Arab Spring.  It is a short story or récit of a mere 50 pages that tells as fiction the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the unemployed Tunisian graduate forced to sell fruit from a handcart until beaten up by the police.  Pushed to the limit, he then set fire to himself last December, igniting the Arab revolutions.  The fiction is beautifully and sparely written and it conveys with great economy the brutal daily reality of life under the Tunisian régime, the harassment by corrupt police and officials, the resignation of the majority of the people in spite of their awareness of the injustice that was their daily ration, and the absence of all hope in a culture of grinding poverty where the poor face only humiliation and harassment.  Less than six months after the death of Mohamed the Gallimard presses have rolled (I picked it up on Monday in the Librairie Pages et Images in St Malo) and Ben Jelloun's composed and restrained anger shows no sign of undue haste in the writing.  Let's hope it's quickly translated.

P.S. Ben Jelloun has also written simultaneously, I gather, an essay on the same theme called L'étincelle [The Spark] which I haven't yet seen.

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