The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito (trans Robyn Creswell). New Directions. 118 pp., $12.95.
One might expect The Clash of Images, acclaimed Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito’s recently translated book of short stories, to be focused on the conflict between traditional Moroccan society and Western modernity. Indeed, it is true that in Kilito’s stories local Moroccan culture butts up against the West: Quranic education at the msid is endangered by a school run by the French “infidels”; French middle school readers break Muslim taboo and depict the Prophet (and as a Moroccan peasant, no less); and the projectionist at the local cinema cuts the “dialogue, boring by definition, . . . dead time, filler, hokum . . . ” from American Westerns. Yet this slender collection is a small treasure for how it resonates beyond the most obvious borders of its form. “Life is a heap of impressions, sensations, dreams,” writes the author in an introduction to his collection. “Literature supplies a reference point, injects order into disorder.” Exact in its observations, confident in its narration, compact, honest, and tonally subtle, Clash of Images gives the feeling that something central about the mystery of being alive has been preserved for us and is shared.
Over the course of thirteen stories we become intimately involved in the life of Abdallah, a young boy growing up in urban Morocco amid an extended family. Kilito offers glimpses of this family as the stories unfold—father and grandfather, both of whom ineffectually resist and then allow Abdallah access to the seductions of Western culture that so charm him; the mother and grandmother, his ever staunch allies and supporters. But this is not the story of a child so much as of a man: whether Abdallah’s presence in the stories is more perceptible to the reader or less, this youthful world is always being seen—and weighed—through the eyes of the adult he has become.
The collection gets off to a strong start with “The Wife of R,” wherein a narrator looks back on a woman who lived on his childhood street. She would stand all day behind her door, hijacking passing women and children long enough to extract from them the intimate news of their lives and homes. Only with the final story of the collection, however, when Abdallah as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood home and recalls the wife of R, do we know for certain that the first story had been through his eyes too. By contrast, in most of the stories Abdallah is a palpable presence, a child suffering through the abuses of the msid, attending the wake of his grandfather, learning to decipher comics and illustrated adventure books, enduring hunger at summer camp—that is, going through the rites of passage so common to the life of children all over the world.
The plotlines in Clash of Images are simple, yet all of them hold deep and sophisticated peregrinations into the nature of language, story, and image. In “Sparrow,” Abdallah’s grandfather, Old Abdelmalek, skeptical of saints and doctors, dies after being visited on his sickbed by a doctor. At the funeral service Abdallah’s grandmother passes him a handkerchief and tells him to wipe away his tears. He hadn’t been crying, and so the handkerchief reminds him “that nevertheless he must shed a few tears, that it would be improper for him to remain dry-eyed.” At the wake the guests eat and deliver their funeral orations for Old Abdelmalek until dawn, when everyone except Abdallah’s grandmother falls asleep. As she stands at the stove making soup a sparrow hops into the kitchen. “He approached the grandmother and, fixing his eye on her, continued chirping. The old woman’s nose began to tremble . . . and a fat tear rolled down her cheek.”
What makes this story so riveting is its accurate and tender portrayal of the situation and its characters, as well as an intense analysis of the nature of stories that serves as a secondary line of development. An attention to language begins the story when the narrator tells us that doctors, who know the secrets of life and death and “like the gods of Olympus live on nectar and ambrosia,” also speak foreign languages: the “beguiling words they pronounce are transformed on paper into spells and cabalistic formulae.” In like kind, the story then concludes with a meditation on the nature of stories—”The dead are good ‘transmitters’ of stories,” Kilito writes.
One begins by weeping over their absence, by speaking to them, apostrophizing them, even scolding them for having abandoned their relatives to so much grief. Afterward, one tells how they passed away to those who don’t yet know—who have come, as they say, to offer condolences. The story of the dead man’s last moments is in this way built up piece by piece; each visitor has the right to a small, dry scrap of story, composed simply of facts reported with utter objectivity . . . So, little by little, a novel is built out of many voices, a hagiography composed of anecdotes, witticisms, character traits, a long list of virtues, good deeds, and unsuspected talents that no one would think of disputing. Piously arranged, the novel keeps evolving as long as it continues to be transmitted . . .
Kilito extends this meditation for nearly two pages. The novel “gets thinner, falls apart, flakes away,” until “only a few stereotypical episodes are left.” He evokes the image of a gravestone, where “abundant” growth effaces the name of the dead. “Loss of name is what the dead fear most,” he writes, concluding his story with an incredibly moving allusion to Dante’s Purgatory: “Remember me: I once was Pia!”
Kilito, a professor of literature at Mohommed V University in Rabat and the author of many important works on classical Arabic literature, tells us in his introduction that “the image is to a certain extent the subject or hero of this book.” He goes on to explain that “the stories take place during the transition between a culture based on the text and a culture in which the image comes into being—very hesitantly at first, then more aggressively as it gains more ground—and eventually seeks to banish the text altogether, to replace it.” Seeks is a key word here, for in Kilito’s collection the image is what allows stories and novels to be written and accessed. “Don Quixote’s Niece,” for instance, one of the most beautiful odes to childhood reading I have ever come across, starts off with the illustrated novels left behind by Abdallah’s cousins after their weekly visits to his house, novels he would “leaf through without actually reading.” The sounds of the words and phrases mean nothing to him, while the images are “mute, far off, as if saddened by not being able to convey their urgent, vital message.”
Abdallah is finally able to access these illustrated adventures by way of comic books. Starting with “Kiwi Rodeo,” he becomes fully subsumed by the world of comics, reading them obsessively until his grades slip and his father, whose wish is for Abdallah to become a doctor, “formally prohibits his son from reading comic books.” Miserable at being cut off from this source of pleasure, Abdallah picks up one of the adventure novels and discovers, miraculously, that he has finally learned to follow “the twists and turns” of Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and other complicated stories. Conversely, “Cinédays” is a breathtaking story constructed from the images of the Westerns Abdallah watches at the local cinema and his memory of the projectionist who understood it as his duty to cut the scenes with dialogue—”of which he understood not a word . . . “
It would be remiss to fail to mention one of this collection’s signal pleasures: the pervasive humor that universalizes and illuminates its stories. In “The Wife of R” the women who have been interrogated by R’s wife return home “out of breath, with the unpleasant sense of having been shaken down and ruthlessly emptied of all their contents.” In “Don Quixote’s Niece,” Abdallah’s father discovers him reading Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer and stretches out his hand to “snatch” the book away—not in order to confiscate it but to examine more closely “an especially eloquent picture.” In “Tomorrows That Sing,” the director of a summer camp greets the children whom he does not adequately feed “with the traditional ‘Katikatikati’ (a word that belongs to no language, but which in our camp meant: silence, attention, alert).”
We have translator and Paris Review poetry editor Robyn Creswell to thank for making this collection available to us in English. He came across La Querelle des images, he says, “entirely by chance while shopping at La librairie Averroès, one of those wonderful French-Arabic bookshops near L’Institute du Monde Arabe in Paris.” He is an Arabist by training and had read several of Kilito’s works of literary criticism but didn’t know he wrote fiction. “I bought the book and read it right there, on a bench by the Seine. I loved the Proustian rhythms of the sentences, its vacillation between story and analysis, and its portrait of the child as reader. I also thought that it was telling a subtle, layered tale—full of ambivalence, but also humor—about the transition from a scriptural society to what Kilito calls ‘the age of the image.’” Despite the importance of images to Kilito’s novel, Clash of Images is an important reminder of what great literature can do. In depicting the role of reading in one man’s life, it offers readers a chance to intimately recollect their own reading experiences. In sharing the vitality of myriad interconnected forms of expression, it becomes a book to re-read and share.
A’Dora Phillips studies fiction in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at UMass-Amherst. Her stories, poems, and essays have been published in a number of literary magazines.
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