A Palace in the Old Village by Tahar Ben Jelloun (First published in the UK by Arcadia Books in 2011) A short novel that centres on an immigrant worker in France as he approaches retirement. He’s become disenchanted with his adopted country and the values it’s instilling in his children. To overcome it, he plans to spend his retirement back in his Moroccan village, building a house for his whole family to live in.
One of the great things about books (and tv, film, paintings, photography, music...well, you get the picture) is that they can take you to places (and times) you’ve never been before. Art can be your own personal transporter, just like in Star Trek but without Scotty (or Geordi for you Next Generation fans). It can instantly transport you anywhere.
If it’s done well, of course.
If not, you end up just hanging around in the departure lounge.
I had high hopes for this book, from “Morocco’s greatest living author” no less. I love books that take me places I know nothing about. There’s been a lot from India in recent years, and Japanese novels seem to have got a lot of fans too. But I’d never read anything from North Africa. So I packed a bag and settled in for a trip.
It’s not that the book is particularly badly written. Tahar Ben Jelloun clearly has a lot of control of his art, or he wouldn’t have such a reputation or be so widely published. The purpose of the book was clear, the story lucid enough, the narrative coherent. He portrayed a very believable and sympathetic central character. All the right ingredients were there.
But there simply wasn’t enough bite to it. I’m not a reader that demands a twist in every page. If anything, I verge more on the pretentious side of the scale than the thrill seeker (much as I dislike myself for it). But even for me, this book was too much “issue” and not enough “story”. (Is overboard to admit to being a little pretentious and use quote marks in the same paragraph? Oh well, too late...)
The author has very obviously started out with a message, and then tried to construct a story that will help him to tell it.
I don’t like that.
I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done, just that it shouldn’t be done so starkly. There’s nothing wrong with making a point through fiction. Orwell did it all the time, and I like reading him. In fact, I’d go as far as to say a book needs to have a wider moral point or two in there, but it needs to be in the background. In A Palace in the Old Village, it’s not so much in the foreground as permanently tattooed on your eyeballs. You simply can’t escape it for a second or two and just enjoy the story.
There is, however, one saving grace. The book constantly switches between first person and third person narrative. “That must be distracting”, I hear you scream. Well, no, it isn’t. In fact, the first few times the tense was switched, I didn’t even notice it. Hand on heart, it was done so subtly that I didn’t know it’d happened. I’ve never seen that attempted, never mind achieved. It really was very well done, and was a quirk that meant the book didn’t totally suck balls.
Until the very end of course, when the resolution of the story was so contrived that Paolo Coelho should be a little worried (that’s right, I just dissed Coelho. I guess I just don’t like anyone much in this blog post, huh?) The fairytale quality of the last few pages jarred so violently with the rest of the book that it left a bit of a scowl on my face when I turned the last page. Not a taste you want a book to leave in your mouth.
Maybe it was on purpose. Maybe the author was making a point about the differences between France and Morocco (again).
Either way, it didn’t work for me.
And that’s mainly because of the whole first person/third person quirk.
After that, I need the next thing I read to be good, I really do. Not time to give Coelho another try, then.