4 out of 4 stars
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A beautiful love story of and about otherness. Raquel Says (Something Entirely Unexpected) by Mois Benarroch opens, as promised in the title, with an entirely unexpected, surreal premise: “Today, and only today, you may create a person” – these are the words that one day appear out of the blue on the writer’s computer. And thus emerges THE OTHER, the one who is the same but not quite, the half that could complete the whole.
Mois and Raquel’s chance encounter in their forties, while they live in different parts of the world and are both disenchanted with their family lives and life in general, opens them to a love they didn’t know existed. Soon their daily conversations, through emails and phone calls, become as vital as the air they breathe. What unites them is the deep, invisible and yet unbreakable bond of shared roots, shared history and the call to give that history a voice. Mois and Raquel are both writers, and they were born in the same city, the no longer existing Hebrew Tetouan. They are “the last Tetuanis”.
Rather than finding one’s soulmate, the theme that lies at the core of this intimate and intense first-person narrative (with a twist) is the quest for identity, and literature itself. How does a Sephardic Jewish writer, born in Morocco and now living in Israel, find his voice and a sense of belonging? In an age of globalization and multilingualism, how does an immigrant escape the great sense of isolation that lies beneath the apparent unity of the big “melting pot”? How can one language feel harsh and oppressive, and the other, sweet and soothing? What creates the urge to write, to tell one’s story? What’s the secret behind the flow of words? Do words and writing have a mysterious power that can make parallel lines intersect outside the limits of time and space?
Drawing on existential récit and autobiographical elements, Mois Benarroch tackles all these questions and more in his free flowing jeu d’esprit, an intricate web of thoughts, memories, hopes and dreams, in which are seamlessly interwoven the mystical and the mundane, prose and poetry, the past, present and future, what is and what could have been. Taking us through a maze of labyrinths and gardens of forking paths, where time and space can be distorted, suspended or even erased, where the virtual can be more real than the “real life”, and where at times silences can speak louder than words, Benarroch is presenting the readers with a literary puzzle: who is Raquel? The clues to the mystery are hidden in plain sight throughout the whole book.
One of the things Raquel urges Mois to do, since he has written all his previous novels in Hebrew, the language of his adoptive country, or rather his land of exile, is to start writing in Spanish, his mother tongue. I must admit I was a bit baffled at first. As a literary translator, I’ve always considered multilingualism as a marvelous tool rather than an obstacle. So, what does it matter what language we write in, as long as we get our message across? After all, there I was, reading the English translation (and a pretty good one at that, I might add) and none of the book’s essence was lost on me. But then I read an excerpt of the same book in Spanish, and I understood. Here’s just one example. “I wait there. I despair. Wait there and despair, but.” The English translation conveys the message, but it doesn’t in the very least capture the breathe in-breathe out musical poetry of the original – “Espero. Desespero. Es, pero.” No, the soul and substance of certain words is untranslatable.
I whole-heartedly rate this little gem 4 out of 4 stars. An intriguing and thought-provoking page-turner that will probably be best enjoyed by the more advanced readers who are not afraid to step out of their comfort zone.
“By admitting five years ago my situation as an eternal immigrant, of being a country of one person, of being the eternal immigrant from that country, I found a room for me in this house called Earth. It’s a small room with no windows, but it has a door and a key.
Someday I’ll have to learn to leave this room.”
Raquel Says (Something Entirely Unexpected)
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