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‘In Paris and free’ [book review]

A review of A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan

In his new novel, A Country for Dying, Abdellah Taïa explores the lives of migrants in Paris, offering an unusual and uncomfortably real perspective on what it is to exist between places. Cut off from their own countries yet marginalised by their new home, his characters live fragmented lives that often play out at night-time or in dark, shadowy spaces. Themes such as gender, sexuality, religion and identity are explored in some detail as well, making this brief work of fiction – published by Seven Stories Press in a seamless translation by Emma Ramadan – something deeply profound and complex.

A Country for Dying Abdellah Taia

It has to be said that A Country for Dying isn’t necessarily an easy book to read. There is a searing honesty to Taïa’s prose that pinpoints moments of human darkness with supreme clarity, whether it’s an overwhelming sense of despair, a moment of intense anger or a sexual encounter that verges on the violent. There is plenty of ‘hatred and wretchedness’ in the world – the ones the characters have left behind as well as the one to which they have come – and Taïa sees and captures it, refusing to allow his readers to escape. I sensed a bitterness behind his words, a smouldering anger, which comes across in staccato sentences and the occasional air of bravado put on by his characters, most notably Zahira.

Zahira, who might be described as the novel’s main protagonist, is a forty-year-old Moroccan who has lived in Paris for many years. A prostitute, she plies her trade by night and occupies a shadowy realm in which she uses her body to give comfort to other immigrants. Traumatised by her father’s suicide many years before, the novel opens with her remembering his footsteps pacing the attic floor above her childhood room and, in a brief but heartbreaking moment, the sound of those feet finally coming to rest. Another ghost from the past is Zineb, her aunt, who disappeared as a young girl and is the source of great fascination for Zahira’s friend Aziz, a young Moroccan man, also a prostitute, whom we encounter on the eve of gender confirmation surgery.

Aziz, who soon becomes Zannouba, is one of the most affecting yet tantalisingly hard-to-reach characters. It is a feature of this novel that none of the characters are truly accessible – Taïa is careful never to give away too much, allowing us only momentary glimpses of minds and bodies, and nesting stories within stories so that we soon become caught up in a labyrinth. The fragmentary narrative structure is such that we never really know where we are or where we will be going next – although categorised as a novel, A Country for Dying is perhaps more accurately described as a series of vignettes, a succession of images and captured moments that serve to create a blurred picture of a handful of individual lives. The effect is powerful, leaving the reader with the sense of being on the outside, of not quite having understood – the sense, perhaps, of being on the edge of something unattainable that each of Taïa’s characters feels too.

For Aziz/Zannouba, that inaccessible thing is a feeling of being whole and at home in her body, of having a strong identity, of – quite simply – happiness. Her story contains overtones of brutality and a clear focus on the body, from the rough sex she has with her clients when she is still Aziz to her thoughts about her impending surgery, which constantly circle around violent actions like cutting off and leaving holes. Zannouba’s relationship with her body, particularly in its new form, is a mirror of the migrant’s relationship with their place in the world – when her new body fails to give her the sense of homecoming she had been hoping for, the despair that crashes into the novel is breath-taking.

For all its fragmentary nature, A Country for Dying is rather symmetrical – with the exception of Zahira, the central figure linking them all, every character has their counterpoint. For Zannouba, this opposite number is Mojtaba, a gay Iranian dissident who has fled his country and is quite literally scooped up from the streets of Paris by Zahira. Their brief relationship is filled with tenderness and showcases Taïa’s more poetic writing in sensual descriptions of food, for example; his lyrical writing elevates itself to an even higher plane when it comes to an impassioned letter Mojtaba writes to his mother. Another pair of opposing figures is Iqbal, the Sri Lankan laundry owner with whom Zahira is hopelessly in love, and Allal, the Moroccan man who once loved her but whose overtures were rejected by her mother because he is Black. And, for balance in all things, the missing Zineb is returned to us towards the end of the novel, the counterweight to the memory of Zahira’s father and a moving reminder that displacement is nothing new. ‘“I want to be in that dream,”’ Zineb tells her lover when she describes her desire to start afresh in a new country – a sentiment being echoed more than fifty years later on the streets of Paris.

There is indeed something dream-like about Taïa’s novel, which has the effect of keeping the reader spellbound even though they might secretly prefer to look away. The uncomfortable edge I felt myself on is maintained effortlessly throughout the novel, carried by Emma Ramadan’s expert moulding of language to convey big emotions in a small number of words. It is also compounded by Taïa’s refusal to truly acknowledge the city, which looms large in the background but very rarely appears. Only the Jardin du Luxembourg is described – and that sparingly – on Zahira’s and Mojtaba’s night-time visit; the other glimpses we get of Paris come in the form of pavements, corner supermarkets, underpasses and bedrooms. ‘That garden was foreign territory,’ says Zahira of the landmark she had never before visited, and in its very absence from the page this is what Paris as a whole feels like.

As much as this novel is about identity and relationships, it has at its heart a discussion of place. ‘Where to go to die a little bit more?’ asks Allal towards the end of the novel, rejected and heartbroken, and I began even more to question the novel’s title. Which is the country for dying – France or Morocco (or, in Mojtaba’s case, Iran)? Both? Neither? Taïa doesn’t give us an answer. ‘Paris is a black hole,’ Zahira tells us, but then again, as though trying to convince herself: ‘no matter what happens, Paris is mine’. And, perhaps most poignantly, in one of those simple, knife-twist moments Taïa inserts with such skill into his pared-back prose: ‘I am free. In Paris and free.’ This near the beginning of novel that will go on with complex structuring and raw, lyrical prose to question that phrase in its entirety: what is Paris, and what is freedom? A Country for Dying is not the answer these questions. It is instead a novel to make us ask them.

A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan, is published by Seven Stories Press on 6 October 2020 and available in digital or paperback. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.


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