The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Lawrence Osborne’s novels, tourists can’t escape their true natures

Ralph Fiennes, left, and Jessica Chastain star in “The Forgiven” movie. (Nick Wall/Courtesy of Roadside Entertainmnet and Vertical Entertainment)
7 min

In conventional literary travelogues of Westerners moving Eastward — to India, China or Arabia, as examples — there is a tendency toward an earnest elevation, redemption and deepening of the expat’s soul through travel. Eating, praying, loving, etc. Lawrence Osborne’s novels pose the opposite question. What if it is the less-agreeable, debased and discriminatory layers of the self that are revealed in expatriation?

In the opening pages of his breakout 2012 novel, “The Forgiven,” a glamorous British couple arrives by sea into the Moroccan port city of Tangier. Osborne describes how the “mountains had a feltlike greenness that made you want to reach out and touch them. The Pillars of Hercules had stood near here, where the Atlantic rushes into the Mediterranean. There are places that are destined to seem like gates. One can’t avoid the sensation of being sucked through a portal.”

It is an arrival re-created on location in the new film adaptation by John Michael McDonagh that recently opened in theaters. As the Moroccan coast appears, a crisply-suited Ralph Fiennes looks out into the undulating landscape and says to his American wife, played by Jessica Chastain, “L’Afrique.” She briefly looks up from her paperback novel, cynically resigned to the journey through Muslim lands to follow. The unsettling score swells as the camera glides over the Atlantic into the hills of Tangier.

Osborne is a lifelong observer and novelist of portals. His seven works of fiction since 2012 conjure stories of contemporary American and European drifters in Thailand, Cambodia, Greece and Morocco, among others. The recurring focus on expats and foreign landscapes has drawn comparisons to Graham Greene and Paul Bowles, but Osborne’s subject is not the postwar period; it’s the globalized, post-9/11 present.

In the film and the novel of “The Forgiven,” the posh central couple played by Chastain and Fiennes accidentally kill a Moroccan boy on the desert road to a debauched international soiree. They bring the corpse along as the pool party continues — until the boy’s Bedouin father arrives to reclaim his son and demand repentance. In the clash of civilizations that follows, there are racist, classist insults, homophobic and sexist asides, and violence. McDonagh tells me he pursued the rights to the novel because he loved its ethical ambivalence and Osborne’s refreshing lack of moralizing. “Lawrence has no problem with creating whole books about unsympathetic characters. You have to make up your own mind about his characters.”

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In the case of “The Forgiven,” I was stunned by its unvarnished and provocative portrayal of how its Western and Moroccan characters collide. The sinister tone and acidic dialogue are bluntly out of sync with hopeful — and perhaps more palatable — contemporary ideals of cross-cultural understanding.

For a writer of as much insight and sensitivity as Osborne, this is very much by design. “This is how people talk, on all sides and everywhere,” he says over Zoom from his home in Bangkok. “Most of human discourse is pretty brutal much of the time, except when we’re in a polite, middle class world and people tread on eggshells. But behind closed doors, when people are with their tribe, the brutality returns.” Osborne is unapologetic about his position and says the ascent of a cautious and self-censoring approach to writing the “Other” creates stories that are not only less honest, but less interesting. “When someone is self-censoring, you know they’re doing it. I think readers want something unvarnished, something just more raw, even if it’s more nasty.”

Before publishing “The Forgiven,” Osborne spent two decades working as a travel writer in New York, covering the new borderless, hyperconnected and gilded world globalization had made. But he says that his mission had always been to turn his attention full-time to novelizing the complicated reality of nations he’d experienced in the field.

He says what originally drew him to foreign correspondence and travel writing still holds — a deep love of place. But while he lost his patience for tracking the zeitgeist of Asia or the Middle East for the tourism industrial complex, in novel form he’s found a way to convey the layers of history and identity that make places and people tick. “That’s what gives human life meaning, that we don’t forget the past and that the dead are present among the living.”

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Foreign places, in his fiction, are as slippery and prone to contradictions as the unlikeable characters who inhabit them. These are not meandering and longing tales of wanderlust but tightly-plotted, propulsive novels in which someone finds themselves much farther afield and dislocated than they ever imagined. “It taps into that existentialist idea that underlies a lot of Lawrence’s work — that you can’t escape your own nature,” McDonagh says. “When you look at his characters, they’re either fleeing something or seeking oblivion in a foreign place.”

To render those journeys, Osborne’s writing luxuriates in elsewheres — filled with poetic descriptions that evoke shifts in wind patterns, shadows on Mediterranean surf, gliding light across desert sands. The grandeur of those settings is deliciously juxtaposed with the foolishness and darkness of his characters. With what he sees as contemporary American and British fiction’s fixation on interiority and private dramas, the external world and how it shapes character has faded out of view. It is this insistence on foreign places as characters that makes his work inherently cinematic.

“The Forgiven” is the first of several screen adaptations of Osborne’s writing currently in production. It was filmed entirely on location in Morocco despite coronavirus pandemic closures and retains the thematic expansiveness of the novel. Osborne has been careful to choose filmmaking collaborators who will not sand down its edges for easy consumption and despite its star cast, it is an independent and distinctive film. In McDonagh, whose filmography includes “Cavalary” and “The Guard,” Osborne says he finally found a filmmaker whose satirical and brash comedic sensibility could retain “The Forgiven’s” unsettling essence in translation.

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Osborne’s latest novel of expat ennui, “On Java Road,” is also published this summer. It is the story of a fading friendship between an Englishman and a Hongkonger set during the brutal Chinese crackdown of the 2019 pro-democracy movement in the once British-ruled city state. I’ve been reading this latest epic of expatriation as I’ve been in the process of a repatriation.

My journey home to the United States after almost three years living in the Arabian Gulf has generated a kind of constant internal toggling — shifting abruptly between lamenting the political crises here at home with the very real pleasures of homecoming. I find myself asking if I’m changed by the years abroad or simply further unmoored.

International movement has never been easier, but with airports crushed by “revenge travel” and resource wars, is it even worth going elsewhere? It is precisely this kind of fast travel that Osborne says has ruined what travel can provide at its highest form — a genuine sense of dislocation and expansion. In the growing footprint of what he deems “Planet Tourism,” his novels have become his radical reworking of travel writing — as sensual, provocative and riveting portraits of lives and places in flux.

Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times and Newsweek, and on NPR.

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