By Dennis Drabelle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
By Tahar Ben Jelloun
Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale
Penguin. 275 pp. Paperback, $15
At one point in this short but ambitious novel, a character philosophizes about those "on the margins of society," including "an American writer who'd lived [in Tangier] for several years with an illiterate Moroccan boy, while his wife had set up house with a peasant woman." There's irony in that allusion to expat novelists Paul and Jane Bowles, who came to Morocco to find themselves: The same dream impels many of the characters in "Leaving Tangier" to ditch Morocco for Spain.
The author himself, Tahar Ben Jelloun, moved from Fez to France in 1961. He seems to know the many ways in which people-smuggling can be done and, more important, how the uprooting affects those who submit to it and those who take them in. The story of Azel, Jelloun's main character, is fairly typical: He has a university degree but no way of parlaying it into a good job. Long praised by his mother as "the handsomest boy in Tangier," he decides to make good on that asset. After meeting Miguel, a rich older Spaniard who visits Morocco regularly, Azel becomes gay for pay, the pay being that Miguel will take care of the young man if he can find his way to Spain.
That he does, at first faring well enough as Miguel's paramour: The surrounding luxury is easy to get used to, and, in bed with Miguel, Azel closes his eyes and tries to conjure up women who have pleased him. But Miguel has repeatedly been double-crossed by previous lovers, and he punishes Azel prospectively by humiliating him in front of their friends. For his part, Azel comes to realize he has overestimated his ability to be who he's not.
As the novel heads toward a brutal climax (but not the one you might expect), Jelloun weaves in the stories of other emigrants: Azel's sister, who embarks on a joyous affair with a seemingly flawless young Turk, only to find out she's badly mistaken; a small-time Moroccan-Spanish gangster; a Cameroonian who draws upon world literature to comment on the action. The novel ends with a surrealistic paean to the combined pain and hope of sending oneself into exile. Artful and compassionate, "Leaving Tangier" evokes a milieu of self-exile and great expectations in relatively few pages.