The Last Friend, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Moving a little further north, from South Africa to Morocco, this small novel also deals with friendship and the way its currents shift and change over time. Here, though, it is not a question of power but of betrayal.

We get the story first from Ali’s viewpoint and then from Mamed’s, with a coda from the viewpoint of a mutual friend. Ali and Mamed both describe their childhood with playground bullies and teachers, their adolescence with girlfriends and prostitutes, and their later life with wives and children. A youthful brush with politics gets them arrested, and their brutal eighteen-month incarceration cements their friendship, which survives into adulthood as they move into different careers (medicine and teaching) and even different countries (Mamed moves to Sweden while Ali stays in Morocco). However, there is a subtle tension between them, a sense of things askew, which causes their friendship to fluctuate.

If all this sounds straightforward, it is. I had hoped for insight into Moroccan history and culture but got very little of that from this book. I did, however, gain insight into friendship and how it can play out over a lifetime. More importantly, the book gave me a new perspective on narrative itself.

Ben Jelloun’s style here is to tell the story rather than recreate it. Most western writers try to get the reader to experience the story along with the characters, using sensory details, absorbing characters and suspenseful plotting to engage the reader’s full participation. None of that here.

Yet, the seeming flatness of the story made me pay more attention to how it was being told. Nuances in the way the two friends related the same events suddenly took on great importance. A single adjective here, the description of an article of clothing there gave completely different meanings to a single happening. The extremely short chapters—500 words or so—also made me pay attention. The small frame, and all that was not said, highlighted what was actually on the page.

Usually I have to read a book again if I want to analyze what the writer is doing. However, here I found myself aware of the craft even as I enjoyed the art. Some people would call that a failure on the writer’s part, but I would not go so far. It’s just a different reading experience. Ben Jelloun has found an unusual way to relate two lives, a way that engaged my intellect as well as my interest.

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