Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito’s slender book of linked short stories, The Clash of Images, was originally published in 1995, two years after Samuel Huntington’s famous “Clash of Civilizations” article in Foreign Affairs. The clash referred to by Kilito, however, is an internal one that took place in Morocco—and by extension, perhaps, in other North African or Arab nations, as well—in the decades of the late-20th century. Modern ideas and icons percolated through the culture, represented in many ways but often utilizing the image: comics, photographs, and movies. These notions collided with the traditional values of Moroccan society, guided as it was by Islam and its suspicion of pictorial representation.
It’s worth noting where that suspicion came from. The prophet Mohammad did not wish to have his image venerated after his death, lest it turn him into a false idol—as he believed happened to another man named Jesus, who started out as a human prophet but who was posthumously granted divinity by his followers. This prohibition was extended to human representation in general, as well as that of God—for centuries, devout Muslims were bewildered by Western representations of the divine as an old man with a long white beard. (Gauging from my own experience, that bewilderment continues to this day.)
Kilito aims to write a series of interconnected stories—vignettes, really—exploring this idea and aiming to capture that transition from a profoundly traditional lifestyle to a more modern, potentially disorienting one. That sounds great, but the book isn’t up to the task.
There are two reasons for this. To the Western ear, at least to my Western ear, the tone of the stories tends toward pomposity. Rather than telling the stories through character, the narrator—whether first or third person—tends to go rambling off into grandiosity. The publicity material for this book states that Kilito “[rides] over the frontiers between fiction and reality, between literary criticism and storytelling.” This is nothing to boast about. Maybe I’m conservative in my tastes—heck, I know I am—but I firmly believe in the power of storytelling to illuminate truth. Dragging criticism into it is not going to make any story better, ever.
This unfortunate tendency is apparent, for example, in “Don Quixote’s Niece”, a story that begins with Abdallah, the protagonist for most of these stories, discovering the joys of the illicitly illustrated novel. Soon we’re reading such sentences as: “Theorists praise the fragment—the text with multiple points of entry, whose sense is sporadic and fractured—and advocate reading against the grain.” There might be, somewhere, a book of literary criticism in which this sentence might not grate. Maybe. But a short story?
The second reason for the collection’s unsatisfying effect is that most of the stories are just too slight to amount to much. Yes, there are a couple that clock in at ten- or 12-pages, but many are in the five-to-six page range (bear in mind that these are small pages too, the book measuring barely five by six inches) and oftentimes, nothing much happens.
This is evidenced by such stories as “Djinn”, which is little more than an anecdote about Abdallah and his grandfather that segues into a contemplation of madness. (Don’t ask.) “The Sparrow” is concerned with the funeral of Abdallah’s grandfather, Abdelmalek, while “A Glass of Milk” paints an image of the city’s French school and its headmaster and son. None of these stories functions in the expected way; they are situational snapshots rather than narratives, episodes that accrue into nothing much.
This isn’t to say that the collection is without merit. Kilito can turn a phrase well, and he is ably translated from the French by Robyn Creswell. The opening story, “The Wife of R.”, tells an intriguing tale of a woman who peers through her slightly opened door at the neighborhood street all day long. Besides being an interesting vignette in its own right, it sets up the narrator for the remaining stories (a little boy in the neighborhood) and hints at the thematic ideas that will run throughout the collection—not only is this woman’s image unseen by anyone, but even her own face remains hidden from all but her husband.
“Cinédays”, the longest story in the collection, paints a vivid picture of the rowdy crowd at the local cinema, and the unexpected result of a French couple mingling with the Moroccan crowd. (I lived in Morocco for three years in the ‘90s, and his description was eerily familiar.)
It’s an open question whether the book’s intellectual intrigues will be enough to engage a reader for long. Kilito’s book may be of interest to those readers curious about Maghrebi culture, or about the transitions facing Arab societies over the past few decades, but for readers seeking a more emotionally engaging reading experience, this book is thin in more ways than one.