Book Review: About My Mother by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Navigating old Fez is a challenge, you soon find maps are a burden, the labyrinthine, winding lanes go up, down and off in seemingly random directions and the high walls can make it next to impossible to guide yourself using the sun and sky. The best policy is to abandon any pretence of independence and hire a guide (Fez GPS). The reward is being swiftly led to concealed museums and shops stacked full of dusty artefacts but that also contain treasures hidden from view until tea is drunk, pleasantries exchanged and then finally the opportunity arises to buy roughly hewn Berber jewellery and brass lanterns.

If you ignore the modern trappings like wires and the occasional frantic radio, the Fez Medina still feels like a city unchanged for centuries dominated by artisanal crafts like tanning, weaving and metalwork. It is easy to lose yourself in the moment and imagine you are in times past all of which makes Fez the perfect setting for About My Mother, a book which holds memory and history at its heart.

Tahar Ben Jelloun evokes the spirit of the city throughout his book, giving an insight into everyday Fez life in the middle of the twentieth century.

But while Fez might loom large over the story, the book revolves around the author’s mother Lalla Fatma. Lalla imagines she is still young and living in Fez rather than elderly and suffering from Alzheimers in Tangier, through her tangled memories we get an insight into her at times dramatic and turbulent family life which saw her married, pregnant and widowed while still a teenager.

In part the book is a tribute to his mother whose warm nature, devotion to her family, but also her frustrations and disappointments all make for a character who sounds and is genuine and to who the author gives full voice. Jelloun who narrates the story is patient and understanding with his mother, he makes a wry but sometimes semi-detached observer with an almost anthropological style which seamlessly blends autobiography and fiction. About My Mother is also a nostalgic and intimate vision of Fassis life, as well as the comings and goings of friends and family, the customs, beliefs and rituals of Moroccan life are described in elegant detail.

As I read the book, something unexpected happened, I got emotional, it was difficult when reading about Lalla not to think about loved ones and relatives who were or are in similar states, I think this response was a tribute to the author’s tone and use of language which captures the essence of mortality and the fragility of life.

It was impossible not to embrace Tahar Ben Jelloun’s vision, a mixture of memoir and fiction in a historical setting is for me a treat, but not all readers will be taken by its gloomy tone and a lack of strong narrative many frustrate some.

To state the obvious the author can clearly claim credit for what must have been emotionally punishing book to write, given its strong autobiographical nature.

But for me it translators Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman who in what is traditionally a understated, underappreciated role deserve a special mention in any review. Taking the book from its original French and reworking the text into another language without making the language stilted and awkward sounding is I believe a special skill indeed. Trying to capture all the nuances of a novel in another language has always struck me as an art and I think it is a testament to their ability that while reading it, I didn’t once think of it as a translated work.

The book left me wanting to sample more of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s work and I was pleased to see he is an accomplished author, who I hope to be reading more of in the near future. Tahar Ben Jelloun is a writer who takes the reader and draws them into the lives of the characters and streets of Fez to create a unsentimental yet affecting novel which lingers long on the memory.

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