When I had visited Northern Norway, crossing the Arctic Circle a couple of years ago, the dark, remote landscape held a spell over me. To me, there is something quite fascinating about remote, mysterious regions whether in reality or in fiction. And while The Forgiven is not set in cold, freezing Norway, Osborne’s Morocco seemed sufficiently dusty, barren and bleak enough based on the blurb, pushing me to pick up this novel.
It turned out to be quite a read.
The book opens in Africa, particularly in Morocco, where the Hennigers, David and his wife Jo have just landed.
David is a doctor in the UK, who has recently lost a malpractice suit, and is possibly an alcoholic. His wife Jo writes books for children, although she has been suffering from a major writer’s block and has not written anything for quite a while. They have been invited by friends Richard and his partner Dally for a weekend party at their lavish home, deep in the heart of Morocco, in a town called Azna.
It’s a long journey there. Before they rent a car, they make their way to a hotel and down a few drinks. It starts getting dark, and probably not such a good idea to drive, but Richard decides to do so anyway. Jo is uneasy.
But still there was a needling reluctance in her voice, a physical disinclination of some kind. She didn’t want to go. She always doubted him in moments of pressure, and when she doubted him, there was a tone in her voice that made him resist at once. So, naturally, they had to go.
‘It’s a bit mad to keep driving,’ she tried.
Jo’s fears are not unfounded. The drinks and the dark make for a deadly brew, as they struggle to navigate the unfamiliar desert roads. Not surprisingly, they are lost.
Infact, there’s something worse in store for them.
The sand darkened the moon, and the outline of the road disappeared for a few moments. And then, as her eyes relaxed, she saw two men standing to the left side of the road. They were running towards the car, holding up their hands, and one of them also held up a cardboard sign that read Fossiles, with an exclamation mark. It seemed like such a ridiculous scam. ‘Stop,’ she said very calmly to her husband, but something in him seemed to have decided otherwise, and their dreamlike momentum continued. The sign flew into the air, and there was a crash of opposing wills. Atleast that was how she thought of it. The car’s metal struck human bone…
We are then introduced to Richard and Dally, who have managed to build an expensive home in Azna. The Moroccan locals look at them with distrust and it does not help that Richard and Dally are homosexuals. But despite their disgust for those two, they are also drawn to their wealth like flies to a jar of honey.
Meanwhile, Richard and Dally’s weekend party is in full swing. The guests are glamorous, their hosts are extravagant and all their whims are catered to by the carefully trained Moroccan staff, led by Hamid.
At five to eleven the bells were sounded and the guests were asked to seat themselves according to the name cards posted around the table. Tall Berber lamps of painted animal skin were lit around it and the sprays of lilies gave up an unctuous golden pollen that people tasted on their tongues; a pink-white glow bathed the tablecloth and the walls turned gold.
Castored ice bowls held the bottles of Santenay and Tempier rose, and they were rolled around the room by the boys.
The lounge was crammed with people, many of them lying on the floor and eating McVitie’s crackers slathered with majoun, a mix of kif, dried fruits, nuts and sometimes fig jam.
Hamid is the head of staff and a well-drawn character, who tries to find a balance between both worlds. He makes sure that the instructions of his European masters are carried to the tee so that the party is a success – whether it is decanting expensive wines, supervising picnics, and ensuring an unlimited supply of champagne and kif. And yet, deep down he does not really understand their Western ways and his sympathies lie with the people of his ilk.
After hitting the young man on the road, David and Jo finally arrive at the mansion, with the young man’s body because they did not know what else to do with it. That puts Richard and Dally in a predicament because the police will have to be informed and any sort of negative publicity is bad for his party guests.
While the police formalities are being taken care of, we learn that the dead man’s name is Driss. A few chapters are devoted to him – how he comes from a family of fossil diggers (a job Driss loathes), how he escapes and makes his way to Spain, houses with an old couple and then makes plans to head to Paris. That venture eventually fails and he returns to his homeland.
Meanwhile, Driss’ father Abdellah – with a few of his men – travels a very long distance, from a remote, bleak part of Morocco (from Tafal’aalt), to claim his son’s body. Driss was Abdellah’s only son, but he is not a man to openly display his grief.
The men from Tafal’aalt were unlike anyone he (Richard) had encountered in this country. They were bone-dry and minimal in some way, like pieces of driftwood that have been whittled down to their essential shapes. They moved very slowly but with that purposefulness that makes even humble people seem formidable and relentless and aristocratic. Their poverty only accentuated this dangerous, fluid nobility.
One of the main themes that the novel explores is the inability of the Westerners and the Muslim world to really understand each other, and the clash of values this entails. The Westerners, David in particular, look down upon the Moroccans, and think they are thieves ready to take advantage of the whites.
It also explores how ill-equipped the whites are when it comes to understanding foreign lands, and that the rules that govern the West do not necessarily work elsewhere. More often than not, this misunderstanding leads to tragedy.
The Moroccans, meanwhile, detest the Westerners (infidels, they are called) and their shocking ways. And yet, the whites are the ones with the money, thus also envied by those very Moroccans who have to somehow make ends meet. So they are compelled to pander to them, albeit reluctantly. If not directly employed by the Westerners, most of the Moroccans dig fossils to sell them to the Europeans at exorbitant prices.
All these elements make Osborne’s The Forgiven a delicious and sinister read. His prose is stylish and languorous whether he is describing the ‘The Great Gatsby’ like party atmosphere at Richard’s mansion or the dust, wind, bleakness and barrenness of remote Morocco.
Here were the ergs, the open wildernesses. Tufts of pale, drinn grass lined the road with a hopeless greenery, and here and there a thorn tree rose into the immense morning light, glistening with a mysterious dew.
As they neared the plateau, the land grew almost black, its surface cracked and pitted. It was hard, jagged rock, not the sand he had expected, and before long they were rolling across open country, unbound by the puny formality of a road. In the hot season, the workers fled to the Atlas to make a gentler living, and they left their tool kits and camping gear by the side of the trenches, where they would remain undisturbed until winter. When the temperatures came down, they would return to find their belongings exactly as they had left them. It was like the equipment of a Roman army that had disappeared two thousand years ago, like the camps you could still see surrounding Masada in Israel. The burned plain to the right had a colour of roasted peaches and custard, and across it a single figure made its way in the full anonymity of a morning sun.
You get a feel that Osborne is influenced by Paul Bowles, an author who lived for long periods in Tangier, and wrote novels that explored the same theme. Bowles’ ‘The Sheltering Sky’ is a classic in this genre.
But while The Forgiven explores the theme of clash of values, it is also very much a story about grief and loss…and about atonement and restitution.
Will Abdellah find it in him to forgive David for the crime he has committed? Or will he seek revenge? Will this chain of events take a toll on David and Jo’s marriage? Will David become a changed man?
Osborne has spun a riveting and compelling yarn.