The Death of Murat Idrissi – Tommy Wieringa (tr. Sam Garrett)

I first came across The Death of Murat Idrissi when it was longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize.

Two factors piqued my interest in the book. It was short – always a plus point because well written short novels pack quite a punch. And it touched upon the topic of immigration – contemporary, given the times we live in.

And although the novella did not make it to the shortlist, I was very, very impressed. I have been thinking about it ever since.

Death of Murat Idrissi

Ilham and Thouraya, two young Dutch women, have been vacationing in Morocco, the land of their forefathers. It is an extended holiday that has now come to an end.

Right from the start, the two girls are forced to come to terms with the fact that the freedoms they enjoyed in Europe as women, does not hold much ground in Morocco. In Morocco, women travelling alone are frowned upon, and the girls have no choice but to rely on a man to take them around. The man is Saleh.

Saleh, meanwhile, has his own agenda that he wants to push forward, and he uses the girls as bait. Saleh is knee deep in illegal activities involving smuggling Moroccans to Europe. He takes the girls to the home of the very poor Murat Idrissi, another Moroccan looking to escape the confines of his surroundings with hopes of a better life in the European continent.

Saleh proposes using the girls’ car as a mode of transporting Murat across continents. Ilham, in particular, strongly objects to this dangerous mission, fearing getting caught by officials. Thouraya is more willing to go along. But increasing persistence of Murat’s grandmother and the lure of money weaken Ilham’s resolve and she relents.

That is just the beginning of their problems. It is hardly a spoiler to say that Murat dies en route (as is evinced from the title). Saleh abandons them. The girls barely have any money, they have to travel all those miles from Southern Spain to the Netherlands in their car, and there is a corpse in the boot.

Could this really be them, whose lives have turned into a nightmare at the snap of a finger? There is a dead boy in the back of their car, they’re going to end up in prison, everything they had in terms of hope, expectations is ending right here.

Does it end badly?

The author Tommy Weirenga is much more interested in how the girls confront the crisis they are in rather than its resolution.

He uses the tragedy as a vehicle to examine the roots of Ilham and Thouraya and the complexities of the immigrant experience.

Although Ilham and Thouraya are born in the Netherlands and are therefore Dutch, they have a sense of not really belonging to either culture.

Even though they were in their parents’ homeland and staying with relatives, even though they identified with the people there, they were not Moroccans. That is what they had in common. That they were seen as tourists. That they had to pay tourist prices. They were the children of two kingdoms, they carried the green passport of the Royaume du Maroc and the red-lead one of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in both countries they were, above all, foreigners.

Gradually we get a glimpse of their backgrounds, of how both sets of parents were immigrants themselves having navigated the change in continents successfully. Of how an accident with their car while holidaying in Morocco drained the girls’ finances, and so they had to team up with Saleh.

Thouraya and Ilham have different personalities. Thouraya is more confident of the two, both in her overall outlook towards life as well as in her sexual encounters. Ilham, meanwhile, worries about circumstances that will compel her to accept a traditional marriage despite her attempts to break away from precisely that very thing. And yet, there is a common thread that binds both the girls. And that is the shared feeling of being out of place in their adopted European country.

At barely 102 pages, Wieringa has composed quite a powerful novella. There is a hypnotic and dreamy quality to his prose packed with sufficient tension to propel the narrative forward. Not a single word is wasted. And in a taut offering of this kind, he has thrown in many ingredients to chew upon – the question of identity, the dilemmas of immigrants in everyday life, the dreams of hoping for a better life in Europe, and how those dreams in many ways do not always come to fruition.

Then two planes drilled their way into the heart of the Western world.

She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over; people looked away and kept their distance, as though her body had, from one day to the next, become a hostile object. The discussion ground to a halt, the bellicose language of the daily news trickled into everyday life. Either you are with us, said the most powerful man in the world, or you are with the terrorists. The plans, his words – thy broke her world, the whole world, in two, into ‘we over here’ and ‘them over there.’ And Ilham became ‘them.’

The Forgiven – Lawrence Osborne

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 Forgiven
Vintage Books Edition

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.

Later…

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.