Where our previous literary journey saw us spend some time in the frozen north, today’s trip takes us to far warmer climes – which is not to say that it’s a completely different book. Again, there’s a certain looseness with chronological order, the writer taking us back and forth in time as the narrative demands it. However, perhaps the most significant similarity is in the way family is foregrounded in the work – not to mention love…
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s About My Mother (translated by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman, review copy courtesy of Telegram Books) does exactly what you’d imagine from the title. A son’s tribute to his dead mother, Lalla Fatma, the book shows her lying in her bed in the family home in Tangier, on an inexorable descent towards the grave. As her memory starts to play tricks on her, Fatma spends more and more time in the past, revisiting her early life in Fez, including her three marriages and the brief interludes of widowhood, as well as taking the reader through the local bathhouse and describing her first wedding.
Life slowly gives way to death, and the loving, nostalgic style of the first half of the book is slowly replaced by a darker, more regretful tone. As his mother’s condition deteriorates, the difficulties of caring for her increase, and her writer son Tahar does his best to see and talk to her as much as possible, despite living in France. As he does so, he attempts to prepare himself for his mother’s death, and with it the loss of the last link to his past.
About My Mother is a difficult book to pin down in terms of genre, a subtle blending of fiction and memoir, facts worked into a narrative. However, in truth it’s nothing to get worked up about; what’s more important is how the work acts as a tribute to Ben Jelloun’s mother, with his descriptions and anecdotes building a picture of a woman from another era:
She’s uneducated but not uncultured, she has her own culture, religious beliefs, values and traditions. To live an entire life without ever deciphering a page of writing, without ever being able to read numbers, to live in a closed world surrounded by signs, unable to understand them…
p.10 (Telegram Books, 2016)
Small, ailing and frail at times, she’s also warm and generous, a woman happy with the life she’s led despite the many setbacks she’s faced along the way.
Her condition means that she often finds herself adrift in the past between moments of lucidity, a vast ocean with a rolling tide of memories (a sensation captured elegantly by the writer – and the translators – in the mother’s expansive monologues). This opens a door to her younger years, allowing the reader to experience the important moments of her life, such as her first wedding at the age of fifteen:
It is time to depart. My mother wails, her mother wails, the servants all wail. The noise grows unbearable. It has to be stopped. The night weighs heavy on the heart of this young girl carried off by a man, a stranger, who’s about to possess her, make her his wife, make her happy perhaps. (p.40)
Fatma calmly slips between past and present, the two coexisting peacefully in her mind, and as she moves through time, her son becomes her brother, or perhaps her father, one of many visitors from her past. Tahar accepts this state of affairs and is able to cope fairly well, but some family members struggle with Fatma’s inability to recognise who she is talking to.
The nostalgic tone is beautifully done, but does gradually become a little simple and descriptive. However, at exactly the right time, Ben Jelloun subtly changes the pace. Where the first half is a celebration of life, the second is about the unstoppable march of death, and his mother’s physical condition deteriorates rapidly. Fatma herself is prepared for what is to come:
I’m here waiting and I see the magnificent light, it’s our Prophet’s face, a dazzling light. That’s what death is, we depart on the rays of that light, we no longer suffer, we’re calm. Just thinking about it makes me feel better, less anxious. (p.110)
While those around her struggle to cope, she only wishes for a clean, bright house for her funeral guests. Perhaps it’s for the best that her faculties are failing her as, sadly, the house is falling apart in the same way as Fatma’s health is declining.
Another interesting aspect of About My Mother is the way the writer examines cultural differences in the background. He introduces another elderly lady, the mother of one of his friends, and while she is rich and in relatively good health, she comes across as a contrast to Lalla Fatma in other ways too. Her son is not a frequent visitor, and with no extended family around her, she would be quite happy to move somewhere to be cared for (unthinkable for the Moroccan family). It’s not just the fact that she’s a Thomas Bernhard reader that makes us think that she’s not quite as happy as we might first assume.
This cultural difference can also be seen in the handling of the mother’s long-suffering carer, her former housekeeper/maid Keltum. The writer skillfully describes the ambiguous nature of this relationship, one which manages to balance love and treachery. Having been with the family for decades, Keltum cares for her mistress, but thinks nothing of taking advantage of her. She looks after the old lady, cleaning up after toilet accidents and ensuring all tablets are taken at the right time, yet is always on the lookout for what she can appropriate. Ben Jelloun makes it clear that this is something the family are prepared to tolerate, and even accept, as a normal part of life – something my very Anglo-Saxon brain struggled with at times😉
Overall, About My Mother is a beautiful read, an elegy to a woman and an insight into another culture and a lost time. I’m sure I’m not the only one to find all this fascinating – some parts would perhaps be as alien to modern Moroccans as to Anglophone readers. My only previous taste of Ben Jelloun’s work, The Happy Marriage, was a biting satire, a nasty ‘he-says, she-says’ confrontation of a novel. Here, he uses another tone entirely, but it makes for a book which is just as successful and rewarding to read.