By Lydia Beyoud
Rich with comic and descriptive juxtapositions of traditional Moroccan culture with the exotic and intriguing technology and terminology of the Western world, My Father’s Antenna makes for a comic and bittersweet story of the changes that propel an individual, a family, and a village in Morocco onto the path of modernity.
There are many reasons to love Fouad Laroui’s stories, for they can be read at many different levels and each reader can draw something different from them. He has an ardent following among Moroccans and “maghrebophiles” worldwide, and his books are often snatched up almost as soon as they appear on shelves. Several people have told me of trying to find his books in Morocco, traveling from bookstore to bookstore, only to find them sold out everywhere.
But it doesn’t require familiarity with North Africa to appreciate his work. Although readers with this knowledge will immediately grasp the cultural symbols and in-jokes (for example, the “Belbal” family name is surely a reference to the word in Moroccan Arabic meaning “babble”), one of the reasons I thought this story would be perfect for Words Without Borders is that anyone can appreciate the nuances, humor, and degrees of meaning behind the writing, no matter their background.
I first learned of Laroui’s work on a trip to Morocco in 2005, when a friend loaned me his signed edition of Laroui’s first book The Topographer’s Teeth (Les dents du topographe), saying “read this, you’ll love it. If you lose it, I’ll have your head.” I read it in nearly one go and while I managed to keep my head firmly attached to my shoulders, I found myself, like so many others, charmed and intrigued by his work. As a reader I appreciated his cutting humor, blithely innocent and ultimately tragic protagonists (à la Candide), the intelligence of his writing, and his manner of honestly (and imaginatively) portraying European and Moroccan cultures in all their idiosyncrasies.
As a translator, I was immediately drawn to the craftsmanship of the stories, philosophical references, as well as Laroui’s way with wordplay and the intentional mixture of languages. This grafting-on of words from colloquial French, Moroccan, Dutch, and English is at times simply indicative of the way in which foreign words are commonly used in the text’s original French or else incorporated into the Moroccan vernacular (a language nourished by multiple linguistic sources, rich in highly expressive onomatopoeias, colorful phrases and registers); at other times, it expresses the way in which a word can emphasize the strangeness or singularities of a given group or culture.
Compared to his other work, My Father’s Antenna is relatively lacking in these linguistic transplants, except for the use of the word allochton in the last section. It was this word, of Greek origin but used in the Netherlands to indicate “those originating from another country” (foreigners or immigrants)—by contrast to the native “autochton” Dutch—which was for me the most “exotic” and unfamiliar aspect of this story. Highly revelatory of cultural values and perceptions, both in its common usage as well as its place in the story, for me this one word added another level to this story, and emphasized its reading as a cultural critique. Laroui’s ability to make the exotic familiar and vice versa can push us to reconsider how we perceive ourselves and others.
Another issue this story raises is the uncertainty of whether the changes in our lives brought about by technology are entirely good for us. Personally, the most arresting line of this story is when the Belbal family considers what it must be like to watch television in color, and they “[try] to imagine blue skies and green grass.” In an era when the virtual world can feel more real to us than the one surrounding us every day, leaving us with a sense that our reality is somehow less vibrant than is should be, I found he addressed this topic originally and thoughtfully.
The abuse of authority is a common thread throughout Laroui’s work, and the two plainclothes police officers of this story, who are practically stock characters, are representative of this theme. I included a translator’s note for the cigarette brand one of them smokes because I felt it added a layer of meaning that, while obvious to Moroccans, would not be to those unfamiliar with the society. Casasports are cheap, of notoriously bad quality and are often bought individually by those who can only afford to purchase a few cigarettes at a time. For me, this symbolized the oppression of the poor by the poor, and of the individual by the system, out of vengefulness, misery or spite. The father’s loving, blasphemous defiance of the law, which strikes fear and horror into the hearts of these men, is all the more powerful and saddening when counterposed with the son’s betrayal of his memory with his inability to correct the stereotypes heaped upon him by the talking heads on the Dutch TV show.
After reading that very first book five years ago, I immediately raided my friend’s collection for the rest of Laroui’s novels then available (fortunately his bookshelf was well-stocked). Since then, I’ve read most of his fictional work, finding each one unique and endowed with a distinct authorial style. Laroui’s stories don’t give in to grand statements though there is always a meaning behind them. With humor and intelligence they illicit contemplation, denounce reductionism, and call for greater respect of individual experience. They can never leave you indifferent.
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