Translated by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman. London: Telegram Books, 2016. 288 pages. $16.95.
“For the older writer,” Julian Barnes has written in the memoir of his parents’ deaths, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, “memory and the imagination begin to seem less and less distinguishable.” This is not, as Barnes explains, because invention is overly determined by one’s past, but rather because, with age and experience, one comes to accept memory, in large part, as an imaginative act.
This communion of forces comes into vivid life in Tahar Ben Jelloun’s About My Mother, which tells the story, with seeming autobiographical infusion, of a same-named novelist witnessing his mother’s decline. In reality, Lalla Fatma is an elderly woman, physically debilitated by an unnamed illness and often confined to her bed. And yet, thanks to what the character Tahar calls her “toppled” memory, she exists subsumed by the bustling 1940s and 1950s Fez and Tangier of her youth. There are wedding preparations to attend to and feasts to prepare. Her beloved and long-deceased brother is back in the house. She must ready her gold-embroidered cherbil and babouche slippers for gatherings that, in her mind, are about to begin. On good days, her paid companion pushes her in and out of rooms in a wheelchair, pursuing family members who are liable to hide in closets and duck behind mirrors.
Throughout its pages, the novel interweaves three different realities: There is life in the twenty-first century, and the exigencies of Lalla Fatma’s ailing body; there is the lively cast of midwives and relatives with whom Lalla Fatma colludes in sometimes rambling monologues; and finally there are the full-bodied recollections—the stories of the past, often offset by italics—which come to us filtered through Tahar’s narration. In these sections, we enter a bygone Morocco and encounter the major events of Lalla Fatma’s past. At the age of fifteen, still young enough to be playing with dolls, Lalla Fatma’s parents married her off to a stranger. At sixteen, her husband died in a typhus epidemic that left the streets crowded with funeral processions. She returned to her parents’ house and gave birth to a daughter only to be married off again, this time to an old man who lived just long enough to impregnate her with a son. Finally, she found stability with a new husband, Tahar’s father, although the marriage was contentious. She prided herself in her hospitality while he enjoyed making sarcastic comments at the expense of their guests. Even her doting son admits that his mother was no great thinker (an unsurprising fact, given her childhood), though this fact was less acceptable to her husband, who quietly tormented her for it.
At its most affecting, Lalla Fatma’s storm of nostalgia—and, in effect, Tahar’s as well—encircles the crucial moment when, for economic reasons during Morocco’s transition to independence, the family was forced to flee Fez for Tangier. In one lucid moment she cannot believe how long it’s been since that upheaval:
Almost fifty years! But where was I all that time? It feels like yesterday. I can still smell the roses we spread out on the terrace to dry, to extract the refreshing perfume, drop by drop. The air’s heavy with those scents, the summer’s come to visit but I feel cold. How can I be in Fez and Tangier at the same time, in winter and summer at the same time?
Later, she turns to Tahar and asks, “What kind of life have I had?” Her own answer comes in the form of a heavy sigh. But Tahar thinks, “It’s up to me to guess at that life.”
Indeed one could argue that, despite its surface material, the novel’s heart lies in Tahar’s protractions; in these long recollections, these dutiful transcriptions, we experience a son’s grasping for a parent who is slipping away. “I’m collecting time and days,” he imagines his mother saying, “I bend over and pick them up in scraps.” But of course we could easily say the same thing of Tahar. Even from the novel’s onset, we encounter a man in deep mourning for his mother’s past: for the food she used to prepare, for her gatherings with female relatives, for youthful triumphs against her first mother-in-law. At one point, he even mourns her once-beautiful breasts. When the inevitable death does arrive, his grief is simple and overpowering: “Very quickly, absence, an immense absence, fills the house. The furniture and all the household things have become useless, old, battered, ugly.” Earlier he has acknowledged that his mother never received the compliments she craved from her family, now he ends her story on a humble memory—his older brother blessing their mother: God grant you health and keep you happy in our love.
For the most part, Tahar resurrects the arc of his mother’s past without judgment or commentary, despite his suspicion that she was not allowed a fully satisfying life. And perhaps it should be expected that children, even adult children, will be hard-pressed to regret their mother’s confinement to the domestic sphere. Yet this novel takes defensiveness a step further, and, in a departure of tone, embeds within the narrative an argument in favor of Lalla Fatma’s “submissiveness” and never-ending “conforming to habit.” The case comes in the form of a foil to Tahar’s mother: a worldly and literate ninety-two year-old Swiss woman called Zilli, the mother of his friend. “What?” Tahar imagines Zilli crying in horror, “She’s spent her life in the kitchen? But that’s not living, it’s not even human!”
And yet Zilli is not, in the novel, an enviable figure. Her self-sufficiency is a cause for loneliness, her residence away from her son gives Tahar fuel for deriding the selfishness of the West, “in which the only values celebrated and protected are those of the market.” Is two years of elder care a worthy trade for a lifetime of servitude to one’s parents, husband, and children? This appears to be the incipient suggestion—and one driven home, with a bit too much force, by the circumstances of Zilli’s death, which have her choking on a bite of food and falling headfirst onto a lawn off the terrace of a fancy French restaurant. Her son gets word of what’s happened, but chooses to finish his tennis game, because, capitalist that he is, he was winning. The twist is perhaps meant to be comic, but strong feelings live under the surface, and it comes off as overdetermined instead.
Largely, though, About My Mother is concerned with more subtle connections and the story remains confined to Lalla Fatma’s little house and the part-documentary, part-illusory universe that arises there, like a final gift imparted from mother to son. For Ben Jelloun, who is regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the details of this transference easily constitute—as do the resurrected details of one woman’s past—the epic handing off of information from one generation to the next. There are no great surprises in this story, no deathbed secrets that upend the family life. What we get instead is something more momentous, a partial portrait of the noise that is entrusted to us each time a person dies: the cities that were, the family squabbles and joys, the celebrations that would otherwise leave no trace. It can be a heavy weight to bear, these memories, but here is one family that carries them well.