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from the January 2016 issue

Tahar Ben Jelloun’s “The Happy Marriage”

Reviewed by Tony Malone

The reader is left with the question: in the case of an unhappy marriage, would it be better to follow the advice of Tolstoy or Ben Jelloun?

Just as Tolstoy’s allusion to the particularities of unhappy marriages leads the readers of Anna Karenina to suspect rough times ahead, the title of Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun’s latest novel, The Happy Marriage (Melville House Books; translated by André Naffis-Sahely), indicates that what will follow is likely to be anything but harmonious. This is very much the case: the majority of the novel is devoted to a painter’s description of the gradual disintegration of his marriage. Recovering from a stroke, one he claims his wife provoked, the artist uses the time spent recuperating in his Casablanca home to recount how he met his partner years earlier in Paris, and how, regretfully, he slowly fell out of love with her.

Of course, there are two sides to every tale, and toward the end of The Happy Marriage we finally get to hear the other side of the story when Amina, the wife, finds (in a very loose interpretation of the word) her husband’s notes. Having studied his interpretation of events, she decides that there is a need to balance the narrative a little and proceeds to deliver her view on their failing marriage. It is not giving much away to reveal that she paints the relationship in a rather different light.

In his narrative, Ben Jelloun examines the dramas involving two people tied together for better or for worse, using his main characters to reflect on differing expectations of marriage. One of the main issues explored is the freedom marriage allows, with the painter’s desire for independence coming up against a smothering reality of co-dependence. While Amina sees marriage as an institution where two become one, the artist believes he is given no room to breathe, and occasionally needs to break free of a stifling domestic atmosphere. The question proposed by the novel is whether he is justified in wanting his space or whether he is simply using his wife for domestic purposes while exploiting his position as an artist to enjoy life on his many trips overseas.

For the majority of the novel, it is the husband’s view that dominates. A hard-working, lauded painter, he feels threatened by his suspicious, half-crazed wife, a woman who frequently bursts into his studio hoping to find evidence of betrayal. Cowed by her behavior, he appeals to friends, family, and even his psychiatrist to prove his innocence:

There are many different kinds of madness, and his wife’s wasn’t extreme, but it was just enough to make his life a living hell. There was nothing he could do apart from suffer through it or flee, slip away or face more violence and cruelty. He chose to suffer through it, though under protest.

He goes on to describe how Amina brings her relatives to Paris without telling him, spending his money on her family. True or not, it forms another part of his plan to gradually build a case, layer by layer, story by story, before the final plea to the jury (of readers).

With the discovery of the painter’s notes, it is his wife’s turn to express her view of matters, and Amina immediately sets to work on a response to her husband, and a warning to the reader:

I must warn you that I’m nasty. I wasn’t born that way, but when people attack me, I defend myself by any and all means, and I give as good as I get. Truth be told, I don’t give as good as I get, I inflict even worse damage.

The wife is less interested in ingratiating herself with any potential audience than with systematically showing how her husband never loved her, providing ample “proof” of his philandering. She bemoans his stinginess and the attempts to control her financially while sneering at his inability to satisfy her sexually. All in all, it is a very different picture to the one painstakingly constructed by the professional artist.

The contrasts in how the married couple see the world provide the reader with ample food for thought. Both claim that the children have implicitly taken their side in the dispute, and each blames the other for the lack of tenderness in their marriage.  Another major divergence in their views concerns Amina’s friend Lalla, regarded by the wife as a beacon to guide her through her hour of darkness but seen by the painter as an evil, conniving witch. There is not even consensus on who actually wants to dissolve the marriage, with both claiming that they would happily go their own way, if only their partner would finally agree to the divorce. That this has yet to happen seems due to the lingering affection left despite their antagonism. Each claims the other is being fooled, cheated by close friends, and is determined to help the other see the truth.

Ben Jelloun makes it clear that the main cause for the couple’s issues is that they were ill-matched from the very start. The painter hails from a wealthy, upper class, big-city environment, so when he reveals his impending marriage to a poor woman from the Moroccan provinces, family conflict is inevitable.  Yet there is far more to their differences than a simple gulf in social status. Quite apart from a fourteen-year age gap, there is the small matter of his wife’s belief in certain dark arts guaranteed to bring misfortune to anyone who crosses your path. When the painter discusses this side of his wife’s nature, the reader is rightfully cautious.  However, Amina herself is happy to admit to a reliance on potions and spells, sparing no expense in her desire to acquire a supernatural advantage in the war of wills.

Given the he-says, she-says nature of The Happy Marriage, most readers will be drawn into placing their sympathies with one or the other of the unhappy couple, yet deciding which of the two is more credible is not an easy task. The painter persuades with a practiced voice, building up a seductive, well-constructed plea; his whole story is an argument designed to win the reader over (including some well-chosen “warts” to make his version all the more plausible). It is obvious that he does cheat, but it is what he doesn’t want to admit that might be more important:

How can I leave my children with someone who is so irrational and irresponsible?”
     This question had a double meaning.  On the one hand, he was right to worry, but on the other, it was simply an excuse not to bring this ordeal of a marriage to an end.

The key word here is “excuse”. The reader begins to suspect that the husband is afraid of taking the final step, unable to instigate the separation which (if we believe his side of the story) should have been set in motion years earlier.

Despite the slippery nature of the painter, however, it is difficult to feel much sympathy for the wife either. Her side of the story is more direct, fiercer, and she is unrepentant in her desire to dominate. She may well be more honest, but even as the reader expects the writer to vindicate her, she shows that she is, or can be, every bit as violent and unreasonable as her husband makes her out to be. Vicious, vindictive, and determined to hurt people (especially her husband), it is hard to really warm to her or put too much stock in her claims. Of course, some may find her actions justified; it is likely that each reader will see what they want to see in the couple and place their trust accordingly.

Important to this clash of wills is Ben Jelloun’s use of two distinct speaking styles for the main characters (excellently reflected in English by Naffis-Sahely). The voice of the painter is rendered in elegant, lengthy sentences, the languid prose, written in a slightly distancing third-person point-of-view, reflecting the gentle, calming manner of a man with time on his hands. Amina’s appendix to the story, however, features a rather different style. Her shorter, unvarnished statements are strengthened by the use of an intimate, brutal, first-person viewpoint. Hers is the voice of a woman scorned, clearly angry and determined to set the story straight.

Despite all this anger, in the end The Happy Marriage is a rather sad tale of two people who simply don’t belong together. In a rare moment where the mask slips, Amina admits as much:

We were not made to be together. That was my mistake, our mistake.

Yet even if staying together will inevitably make them unhappy, unlike poor Anna Karenina, neither Amina nor the painter really wants to move on. And so the reader is left with the question: in the case of an unhappy marriage, would it be better to follow the advice of Tolstoy or Ben Jelloun? Unfortunately for Amina and her husband, neither route is likely to make this marriage a happy one.

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