A literary feast of disparate flavors

BEIRUT: When Youssef and his wife Bahia receive a letter to say that their only son, Yacine, is dead, their reactions are strikingly different. Bahia loses her balance, “like an animal being slaughtered,” and falls to the ground. Youssef feels nothing.

“I knew it had happened, but it did not touch me,” the protagonist and primary narrator of Mohammed Achaari’s “The Arch and the Butterfly” writes. “I observed it spreading slowly before me like an oil slick.”

Youssef blocks out his sorrow with anger. His teenage son, raised in a secular, leftist family and enrolled at a prestigious engineering school in Paris, has been killed while fighting as a mujahedeen in Afghanistan. It’s a fate Youssef takes as a personal insult.

Surely it’s not Yacine’s audacity in dying young that so offends his father?

In the onset of a pattern that persist throughout the novel, his thoughts are all of himself.

“How could he do such a vile, cruel, contemptuous, humiliating thing to me?” he rages.

Surely it’s not Yacine’s audacity in dying young that so offends his father? The suggestion is rather that it is his decision to abandon the values of his parents for others they are unable to understand or condone. It is not radicalization or terrorism that are the central theme of this novel, but it’s difficult to say what is.

Achaari is a poet, journalist and Morocco’s former culture minister.

Here he seems to want to tackle themes so disparate that he is unable to fully tie them together over the course of the novel’s 324 pages.

Polemic aimed at the changing face of Morocco’s urban landscape, rampant corruption, the destruction of heritage and the radicalization of young people mingles with an exploration of the mechanics of grief, contemporary marriage and sexual relationships and the dislocation between generations.

In the wake of Yacine’s death, Youssef’s wife decides she wants another baby. When Youssef refuses, she divorces him and promptly marries one of his best friends. Immersed in a cloud of depression, unable to feel or to smell, Youssef has little to say about this development. So utterly absorbed is he with his own response to his son’s death that vast swaths of the novel are spent inside his head, as he examines in minute detail each manifestation of his reaction.

It is almost impressive that Achaari has managed to write a novel in which one potentially dramatic development after another is deprived of its impact by Youssef’s emotional dislocation from his surroundings.

Viewing the events through his eyes, the reader is bogged down in his interior monologue and learns of his divorce, his friends’ triumphs and failures only in passing, with a lack of detail characteristic of Youssef’s disinterest in anything but his own experiences.

It may be a clever reflection of a grieving man’s retreat from the world around him, but it makes for a turgid read.

“The Arch and the Butterly” was co-awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (along with Raja Alem’s “The Doves’ Necklace”) after it was published in Arabic in 2010. It is undoubtedly well-written and Achaari’s talent for description is ably conveyed in the recent English translation by Aida Bamia, but plot-wise the book feels aimless, as though the author were trying to cram several novels into one.

Much of the book deals with Youssef’s relationships with his ex-wife, a nominally platonic friend named Fatima who may or may not be in love with him, and his lover, Layla, who he may or may not love.

A short section toward the middle is narrated by Youssef’s father, a man named Mohammed al-Firsiwi. His tale, which is initially imparted to readers by his estranged son, reads more like a fairy tale than anything else.

A rural bumpkin from the Moroccan countryside, Firsiwi molds himself into a local legend when he returns from Germany with a blue-eyed Christian wife and buys up a slew of local properties and land. After founding a Western-style hotel and fighting for years for a liquor license, his luck turns. A skin disease takes root in the village, a drought destroys his agricultural income and his wife commits suicide. He becomes estranged from his son, who believes he killed his mother.

By the time his grandson is killed, Firsiwi has been relegated to a blind tour guide, wandering the ruins of Walili, muttering about his glorious past, and telling compulsive lies about the theft of local antiquities.

Achaari draws an imaginative portrait of three generations of men guided by utterly different stars – capitalism, communism and radical Islam. Yet somehow the focus is too oblique and the detail too sparse for this triad to hold the novel together.

There is much to enjoy in “The Arch and the Butterfly,” but ultimately it resembles a feast packed so tightly into a picnic basket that it has burst the seams and exploded in all directions.

It’s certainly not an easy read, but, with its proliferation of poets, ancient gods and philosophers, the style of Achaari’s novel compensates for what it lacks in substance.Mohammed Achaari’s “The Arch and the Butterfly,” translated by Aida Bamia, is published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing and is available from local bookshops.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2014, on page 11.




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