The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (trans. Jeffrey Gray). Yale University Press. $13.00, 160pp.
Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa opens his 1998 novel The African Shore with a Moroccan shepherd boy obliviously meandering by reminders of Tangier’s history. First, he passes by a ruined Spanish boating club and then the large abandoned Perdicaris house—the one-time home of the unofficial head of the international community in Tangier, and the site of his kidnapping in 1904 by a local tribal sheik that almost provoked war. Set against this backdrop, The African Shore presents the story of another encounter between a foreigner and a local in Tangier.
A rocky outcrop marking the far southwest point of the Mediterranean, its port has been a maritime crossroads and an object of conquest for millennia. From the Berbers, through Phoenician, Greek, and Carthaginian seafaring traders, to imperial conquest by the Romans, Arabs, Portuguese, English, and Spanish, Tangier’s location has always lent itself to intercultural encounters, most notably in its status as an International Zone from 1923 to 1956. Though united with the rest of Morocco at the end of colonialism, it continues to attract tourists and economic migrants seeking to cross over to a better life in Europe. This is the cosmopolitan setting for Rey Rosa’s story of curious encounters and impenetrable desire.
Rey Rosa is not altogether a foreigner to Tangier himself. After a stint in film school, he moved to Tangier in 1983 in order to participate in Paul Bowles’ writing workshops. By that time, Bowles had established himself as a veritable institution in the city. He immediately took notice of Rey Rosa, separating him from the anglophone writers and giving him special assignments. This encounter between the Guatemalan and the American would prove consequential. Rey Rosa’s writing first came to the attention of the English-speaking world through Bowles’ translations of his early works, and largely due to his relationship with him, Rey Rosa stayed in Tangier—off and on—for much of the next two decades.
As Bowles approached death in the late 1990’s, Rey Rosa was on the verge of leaving Tangier. The cosmopolitan magnet of vice, espionage, and international intrigue was only a shadow of its former self. Rey Rosa references the city’s transformation in an interview with translator Francisco Goldman: “I wrote it in 1998. I dared to write the book when I realized that the Tangier that Bowles had written about—or better yet, created—had changed so much that it was no longer the same city. Only the wind remained…” Faced with the new foreignness of a once familiar place, Rey Rosa worked to capture and create a new and changed Tangier in this novel.
While Rey Rosa was working on The African Shore, he would write in the morning, after which he would venture out into Tangier for the afternoon. There, he would observe, using the experience of the city to edit his morning production. The process succeeded by producing startlingly vivid portrayals that, while bearing traces of a different time, resonate deeply with what I encountered daily during my years in Morocco. Whether it is Moroccans referring to Westerners by the city of Jesus’ birth (‘Nazarenes’) or Moroccan gestures, the endemic use of kif, or discussions about Islam with proselytizing Moroccan taxi drivers—never mind French expatriates’ supercilious, exoticizing attitudes towards their former colonial subjects—Rey Rosa is spot on.
Given the long decades that Bowles called cosmopolitan Tangier home, it comes as no surprise that the inscrutability of the Other is a recurrent theme in his writing. Continuing in his mentor’s tradition, Rey Rosa places a similar theme of mutual incomprehension at the heart of The African Shore. The structure of the novel helps to reinforce the theme and to incorporate the reader in this perplexity. It is composed of three parts that portray separate, but ultimately crossing, stories of two very different lives.
In the first part we follow Hamsa, the kif-smoking local shepherd boy, who is a little too fond of his sheep and has recently become involved in the drug trade. In the second part, we follow an unnamed Colombian tourist, stranded after losing his passport in the wake of a wild night of drinking and whoring. We learn from dispatches, revealed later in the novel, that his life in Colombia is slowly disintegrating as, an ocean away, he drifts through his new Moroccan life without identity and without agency. The two characters and stories meet, only briefly, at the end of the second section, after the Colombian tourist confronts Hamsa about stealing an owl from the Colombian’s room. The third part tells the aftermath of this crossing between the Colombian tourist and the Moroccan shepherd boy and serves as an end, if not a resolution, of the novel.
Ultimately, it is the owl that provides unity to the separate threads of this narrative. Bought by the Colombian tourist, on a whim, for 50 Dh (about $5) from a ragged boy on the street, it immediately becomes an object of adoration and contention whose very existence drives the narrative forward. Because of the owl, the Colombian is unceremoniously expelled from his hotel and thus pushed into the hands of a disreputable American and his ambiguously kind Moroccan friend. After the rejection of an offer to buy the owl, it is summarily stolen by two Moroccan boys. Upon recovering the owl, the Colombian must visit a veterinarian to treat it for an injury it sustained during its abduction, where it further functions as a conversation starter with a French woman named Julie.
Later it provides a pretext to invite him to her farm, where Hamsa’s grandfather lives and works. The stage is thus set for Hamsa’s theft of the owl while the Colombian is out. But is ‘theft’ even the right word? One of the most common experiences of incomprehension between Moroccans and foreigners involves the idea of personal property. The more communal Moroccans have a fluid idea of ownership that Westerners often struggle to understand. Hamsa’s hesitation before entering the room to take the owl may indicate a level of moral uncertainty.
Or it may not. In any case, the owl serves as the site of conflicting desires, cultural misunderstandings, and moral ambiguity. For some, the owl is just a beautiful object to be admired or added to a collection. For others, it may serve as an amulet–a source of luck or power. None of these conflicting desires are adequately communicated, again pointing to the inability of the foreigner to ever truly understand the local Other. While it serves as a floating signifier for the diverse desires of the human characters, ironically, it is the only figure whose story has a fully satisfying outcome.
It’s with these unfulfilled characters and unresolved narrative threads that Rey Rosa helps to shape the world of foreign experiences and the inability to fully comprehend that is Tangier. In addition to his intriguing characters and well-portrayed cultural setting, Rey Rosa keeps the reader’s attention through his highly effective structuring of the novel. In quick sketches of key events, he describes the characters’ actions while leaving their motivations, more often than not, shrouded in mystery. There is barely a plot to draw this series of very short chapters together. It subsists on wonderfully evocative but vague intimations of others’ emotions and desires, often involving the owl. Each of the short chapters works as something like a snapshot meant to capture a moment of foreignness in an alien land.
This masterful style has earned Rey Rosa praise from high quarters in the literary world. In 2009, in these very pages, translator Chris Andrews chose The African Shore for the Translate This Book feature. Roberto Bolaño has also lavished praise upon Rey Rosa’s writing, calling it the most rigorous and transparent of his generation. In Between Parentheses, Bolaño praised the Guatemalan with these words:
Rey Rosa’s prose is methodical and judicious. He doesn’t scorn an occasional flick of the whip—or rather, the distant crack of a whip we never see—or the use of camouflage. Rather than a master of endurance, he’s a shadow, a ray of lightning shooting across the space of normality. His elegance never detracts from his precision. To read him is to learn how to write and also an invitation to the pure delight of letting oneself be carried away by uncanny or fantastic stories.
In light of such effusive adulation, The African Shore practically demands to be read. It is a contemporary tale of international encounters in cosmopolitan, but substantially transformed Tangier, which leaves us thinking and wondering. Anyone who has spent significant time in Morocco will recognize the world that Rey Rosa evokes in his wonderfully frugal prose. And those who have not will enter into a foreign world and encounter a beautiful story that defies full comprehension. Both will leave the land of The African Shore changed. Andrews has received his wish. And we are the richer for it.
After graduate studies in Spanish literature, Christopher Schaefer taught in Morocco. He now lives in Paris.
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