Books covered in this dual review:
• Secret Son, Laila Lalami. Algonquin Books. 304pp, $23.95.
• Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih (Denys Johnson-Davies trans.). NYRB Classics. 139pp, $14.00.
One modest silver lining in the War on Terror has been the increased Western interest in literature from and about the Islamic, Hindi, and greater Eastern worlds. Book club selections and award citations have piled up for The Namesake, Brick Lane, The Inheritance of Loss, The White Tiger, The Septembers of Shiraz, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, The Kite Runner, et al., and while they may all have the stiff wind of corporate marketing at their backs, it’s hard to complain about any readership at all these days, let alone a small movement led mostly by female authors and concerning the lives and cultures of foreigners.
Any financially successful trend will have its lesser fruits, however, and so it is that Secret Son, the debut novel and second book by Moroccan-born writer Laila Lalami, has arrived accompanied by blurbs from Gary Shteyngart and Junot Diaz, including the requisite praise for “straddling the personal and the political.” Lalami’s novel presses all the right buttons—it’s set in contemporary Morocco, concerns a young man’s dalliance with fundamentalist Islam, and has a fast-moving, screenplay-ready plot—but sentence for sentence, this may be the most poorly written novel I’ve read in five years. Secret Son’s characters are all cardboard, it is awash in clichéd metaphors, and the descriptive prose is unbelievably lifeless for the novel’s subject matter and setting. It’s perhaps heartening to see Western readers respond to this kind of relevant literature and implicitly search for cultural understanding in the territory between Morocco and the Indian subcontinent, but Secret Son, by virtue of its uninspired prose, never allows for that possibility.
Stereotypically, a sudden, torrential rain is pouring on Youssef el-Mekki’s tin-roofed house at the outset of Lalami’s book. Youssef, age nineteen, shares this home with his mother, a hospital assistant who has raised him on her own after being abandoned by her family and the man who impregnated her. She’s a hard-working sort given to steely, salt-of-the-earth monologues about self discipline, so Youssef is just beginning his university studies in English literature rather than hanging with many of his peers in the neighborhood’s fundamentalist gangs. When the secret of his father’s identity comes to light, Youssef is outraged enough to seek the man in downtown Casablanca and nearly cut off communication with his mother altogether.
The fictional world of Secret Son is composed entirely of dialectics (rain/desert, student of Western culture/Muslim fundamentalist) so of course Youssef’s father, in contrast to poor mom, is fabulously wealthy. It also just so happens that his father, Nabil Amrani, has a daughter whose interracial relationship with a fellow UCLA student is more cultural change than he can handle, so when young Youssef shows up at his office claiming to be his son, Nabil is freshly willing to accept an obsequious possible heir into the family. Soon Youssef is living in the penthouse that Nabil usually reserves for extramarital affairs and dropping out of school to study his father’s hotel management industry. You can nearly hear the storytelling gears turning as you read the series of obvious conflicts and interactions; naturally Youssef’s decision to bank entirely on his father’s goodwill turns against him, leaving him more desperate than before. And then the hyper-religious and Western-damning monologues from members of the local Party leader begin to make more sense . . .
As a dramatization of how the politically motivated violent urge takes root in an individual, Secret Son is too superficial to teach us anything, and as a narrative about the gradual Westernization of the Third World and its effect on inter-generational relationships, Lalami’s Morocco is drawn in such broad strokes that conflict barely registers as drama. The essential problem in both cases is the writing itself. Twice, and from two different characters’ perspectives, we’re told that Morocco is “the most beautiful country on Earth,” without any physical description or elaboration as to why. When Nabil reflects near the book’s end about his own lapsed activist beliefs, his memories are a haze of nondescript generalities:
[H]e tortured himself with thoughts of a happier past, a time when he would never have made the bargains he made, a time when he still stood for something. What had happened to his world? When did things fall apart? Men of his generation were children of ’56, children of the independence. Like them, he had signed petitions for the release of Saida Menebhi, written articles for Lamalif, spent hours in Rafael Levy’s smoky living room discussing Frantz Fanon.
Serial, internally directed rhetorical questions like the above are found in great quantity throughout Secret Son, but Lalami’s portrayal of indecision, abetted by her characters’ plainly outlined conflicts, lacks tension. When she does successfully transcend her own stylistic shortcomings, which happens in two scenes that revisit key events from different characters’ perspectives à la Rashomon, such structural cunning is deadened by the same rhythmless style, where rage is always “blinding” and a character’s regret is expressed by the narrator’s asking, “What had he done with his life?”
Uninspired prose abounds: thus we have “already-prepared toast” (it’s clear that bread is prepared when we call it “toast”); a police officer who is said to laugh at someone’s misfortune “as if the thought . . . were somehow irrepressibly funny” (of course it was—that’s what a laugh is); Youssef staring at a group of “young people his age”; a raving speech by the local gang leader described as “a labyrinth in which Youssef was losing his way.” At one point, Lalami devotes an entire long paragraph to elaborating why Nabil’s daughter, Amal—a beautiful, headstrong young woman in an overtly paternalistic society—resembles a flower growing in the city sidewalk.
Even the city itself is disappointingly bland:
Cars and cabs fought for space at the semaphore across the street, starting up in a cloud of dark exhaust as the light turned green. A policeman whistled at a motorcycle and then spoke into his walkie-talkie when the driver failed to stop. A truck stopped at the minimarket up the street and delivered canisters of gas. It was scorching hot, and Youssef could feel pearls of sweat forming on his forehead.
The writing here is nothing but earnest, and the author’s intentions, like those of readers, are vaguely admirable. But descriptions like this can’t do justice to the themes taken on in Secret Son: the roots of religious terrorism; a state-of-the-country look at contemporary Morocco’s precarious balance of Western influence and traditional cultures; the effects that balance has on familial life. Simply acknowledging these realities does not make a book inherently successful or interesting. Dramatizing the complex contemporary reality of an evolving, multifaceted country requires the prose of an imagination equal to the task.
It’s not as if Lalami is unaware of how to artfully dramatize and describe these cultural and political issues . . . (review continues on page 2)
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