3 out of 4 stars
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Gates to Tangier by Mois Benarroch is a solid family tale of travel and discovery, but it is also so much more. At its core, it follows a group of Jewish siblings struggling simultaneously with grief over their father’s recent death, and shock and disbelief over his revealed will which discloses the existence of their previously-unknown half-brother living in Morocco. As the family converges to travel together in search of their lost brother, each sibling has a part in telling the progress of events as well as sharing his or her perspective on the action described. The father’s death brings up a concurrent stirring of the family grief at the passing of their youngest brother Israel, and the reader is able to follow along with each member of the family as he or she processes the memories and emotions triggered by both deaths.
Through the telling of each character’s version of the story, we come to learn not only of the history of this particular Jewish family, but also to see glimpses of modern Jewish culture as it crosses national borders and generations. The dialogue and individual voice of each character stands out in its uniqueness, and through their philosophical musings the reader is exposed to bits of the history of the Lebanese war, as well as the relationship between Israel and Morocco and between Jews and Muslims. Topics that are explored by the characters include modern society and religion, war, and antisemitism.
Considering that this was a relatively short work, the author was able to pack a ton of personality into each character, to move the story along fluidly, and to include several layers of meaning which would lend well to repeat readings. Despite the very realistic quality of the dialogue and the general events described, there is also a strong element of surrealism throughout the book. Several dreamlike passages of poetic exchanges are sprinkled between the rest of the chapters, and some chapters are written from the perspective of the deceased youngest brother, which reinforces the feeling of transition and ephemerality brought on by the fact that the initial scenes take place in transit, literally in airports and planes. The surreal feeling is deepened when one of the brothers, a writer, engages in a very self-referential discussion of the process of writing a story about the events taking place in the story, as they actually unfold. In addition, there appears to be a theme of interconnectedness which is hinted at by the existence of several characters who share first and/or last names, and explored directly through the lens of a permeating Jewish culture and its meaning within each character’s life.
This is a deep though not difficult read. Readers with only a limited exposure to the cultures and historical events described here are still able to follow the story easily, and with it to learn bits and pieces of a world they may not know well. One of the biggest strengths of this work is that it has something to offer for readers with a whole spectrum of backgrounds.
Unfortunately the translation was not perfect, as I noticed a handful of small typos and grammar mistakes. In addition, I would have preferred a more direct resolution at the conclusion of the story, however I knew not to truly expect one since one of the meta observations made by the writer within the story was regarding stories without a true plot structure (or, presumably, a true ending). As a result I have rated this a 3 out of 4 stars, but it was definitely very close to getting a perfect score.
Gates to Tangier
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