Book review - A Palace in the Old Village By Tahar Ben Jelloun

Mohammed has lived and worked in France for forty years. But the thought of his imminent retirement unnerves him. When “the crutches of his old routines”, working in an automobile factory, are taken away from him, Mohammed finds himself floundering, cut loose from everything he has ever known. Suddenly life without work has no meaning: “Nothing of France had found a place in his heart or his soul”. Illiterate, he understands French but has never used it.

Taher Ben Jelloun’s award winning book, This Blinding Absence of Light, was a searing account of the desert camps in which King Hassan II of Morocco interned his political enemies. A Palace in the Old Village is a slighter novel, but no less powerful in its evocation of the Moroccan migrant experience.

With remarkable economy (lucidly translated by Linda Coverdale), Ben Jelloun traces the life of a god-fearing man, “for whom Islam was more than a religion: it was a code of ethics, a culture, an identity.” His anger and sadness stem from his lack of authority and inability to teach his “assimilated” children the value of Islam and his native country’s traditions.

As well as describing the migrant experience - the racism and prejudices that have to be endured and the yearning for home - this is a poignant account of growing old. Mohammed’s tolerant nature and weary resignation is also his undoing. His realisation that his life is almost over and he has nothing to show for it terrifies him. Mohammed’s feelings of dislocation grow as he watches his friend Brahim die alone and unloved: “so much loneliness, ingratitude and silence left him speechless”.

Mohammed begins to plan a “grand project” to keep him occupied. He decides to return to Morocco to build a palatial home in the hope that his family – most of them married and dispersed around France – will return and share his final years with him.

He tries to quell his fears of a meaningless retirement with a “stubborn dream” that is both impractical and absurd. Ultimately, though, it spurs him into action, and so he sinks his savings into constructing the biggest house in the village – “a poor man’s palace”.

Ben Jelloun has created an affecting portrait of an immigrant Everyman. In the lyrical ending, in which dreams and reality collide, one senses that despite all the pain and sadness Mohammed’s homecoming finally brings him a kind of peace.

Originally published in Tribune magazine