4 out of 4 stars
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“...how is it possible you're an exile, exile everywhere, exile is my home, the years didn't subdue the pain, son, you'll see, you will always be an exile, exiled from exile,...” is perhaps the line which best solidifies the soul of Keys to Tetouan, a historical fiction novel by Moroccan-Israeli writer Mois Benarroch. Penned by a poet, it is no surprise that the narrative follows a nonlinear, experimental, and what the novel itself describes, "post-post modern" format. It is a farrago of letters, interviews, anecdotes, unimagined (and imagined) dialogues concerning the Benzimra family, a Moroccan-Jewish clan that's supposedly been everywhere in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
Unconventional in style and construction, it is very easy for the reader to get lost in its paragraphs and to understand very little of what's happening in and among its hodgepodge of characters. It is ambiguous, vague, often indecipherable, and yet the author does not seem to prioritize clarity or reader comprehension. When dealing with the concept of home—which at one point is argued as the source of one's identity, and at another, as something completely unrelated—the author is unapologetically confusing, inconcise and almost rude. And yet, as I write about it now, I feel it's precisely this rudeness which makes the book so offensively beautiful. Let me attempt to clarify:
Primarily Benarroch reexamines the concept of a promised land, an ideal of which he asks: "Is it truly attainable?" And he further agonizes, "If so, where is it?" Narrating the experiences and memories of the Benzimra family of Tetouan, Morocco, he juxtaposes their past with the identities they now needed to refashion in order to live in Europe and Jerusalem. He raises the questions "Who am I?" which in itself is a question of "Who are we?" and ultimately, "Who am I in relation to others?" The answers are perplexing, flooded with contradiction, and yet the author seems to be concluding: perhaps this is all that we really are—a people full of irony. "Perhaps," the author might be saying, "we Jewish people are really just wanderers in the wilderness, merely passing through."
The passages, the interviews, the anecdotes, all of these are written like fragments of a lost identity. And the book is a stream of consciousness, the thoughts of a man preoccupied with picking up these shards and arranging them into a mosaic—an attempt to depict that which is elusive. As one of the characters in the story soliloquizes, "I'll write down the lie, and maybe that lie I write about you and me will enable some truth to flourish, some kind of understanding, maybe I'll find a few more pieces of the mosaic.”
Intentionally written like a surge of memories, it is hazy, ambiguous, imperfect, and yet sentimental. It is at once poetic and meditative, reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground and Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain. It is a recommended read for anyone looking for work that is unafraid to be raw, with edges that cut to the heart. I give Mois Benarroch's Keys to Tetouan a 4 out of 4.
Keys to Tetouan
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