Microviews Vol. 10: Tahar Ben Jelloun, Silvina Ocampo

on Saturday, February 19, 2011
A Palace In The Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun

I am fascinated by the literature of displacement. Perhaps it is my own family history - having survived the Holocaust, my grandparents fled Czechoslovakia when the Communists rolled in and did their best to start anew in Australia. Whatever the reason, I seem to have an affinity for books that examine the way in which displaced persons come to understand and negotiate their adopted homelands, particularly when they remain spiritually tied to the country in which they were born. Tahar Ben Jelloun is himself an exile, forced to leave Morocco for France when his academic position became untenable under a new regime. It is this that makes A Palace In The Old Village most probably a work of metaphorical autobiography - Ben Jelloun is hardly an 'everyman' like Mohammed, but he understand his protagonist's situation perfectly. Mohammed has slotted into menial French life fairly well, but his hard-fought contentment is thrown to the wind upon retirement. Suddenly, he has too much time on his time to think or, more precisely, overthink his life. Spiritually anomie sets in, with Mohammed coming to realise that all he loved was a mirage. His children are French, his life is meaningless. In many ways, he is a Tevye figure - tragically left to sift through the ashes of his life. He longs for his old village, and decides to take whatever little wealth he has amassed to return and Morocco, to build the grandest house in his old village. Then his family will return, he figures, then his soul will find peace. While the first two thirds of the book is anchored in reality, the last third drifts into a sort of tragic magical realism. Mohammed roots himself to the chair in the middle of the house and awaits his children's return. They don't come home and he dies. Yet again, Tahar Ben Jelloun proves that he is amongst the greatest Arabic writers at work today. His sense of place and its relation to the core of a person's being is without parallel. This might not be This Blinding Absence of Light, but as a telling peek into the soul of the ageing immigrant it is truly remarkable.

The Topless Tower by Silvina Ocampo

Remember The Purple Rose of Cairo, that old Woody Allen film in which the hero steps out of the screen into real life and romances the chick watching in the front row? Or at least that Twisties ad that rips it off? And remember how it's a device done to death in all forms of artistic media? Well, here is yet another book with a similar bent. A boy draws pictures that come to life, rescuing him from the everyday doldrums of his Cinderella-like existence (pre-fairy godmother, that is). But before your gag reflex kicks in, stop a minute. This one is worth checking out. What sets it apart from many similar works is its artisitc authenticity, most likely the product of the environment in which its author was writing. Ocampo was the wife of Adolfo Bioy Casares, one of Argentina's great absurdist literary gods. Oh, and she was buddy buddies with the true master of the form, Jorge Luis Borges. Ocampo's short novel, while sufficiently distinctive to be more than homage, fits perfectly alongside the works of her more celebrated compatriots. Leandro has inadvertently caused his own imprisonment, by laughing at a man who might be the Devil. He is instantly transported to the Topless Tower with only an easel, paints and canvas to keep him company. Leandro quickly sets about creating a cast of strange characters to save him from this awful (for a little boy) solitude. While the book does have a certain Sendak-like air, it can equally be read as a metaphor for the process of artistic creation and it is to Ocampo's great credit that one is never sure if it was intended as a children's fable or an expression of the struggle of writing itself.


Post a Comment