Each Character's Devotions Define Them in Taïa's Excellent 'Infidels'
Infidels is a book to be read again and again, certain that there is something new to be gleaned every time.
InfidelsPublisher: Seven Stories Press
Length: 143 pages
Author: Abdellah Taïa
Publication date: 2016-05
Abdellah Taïa's third novel translated into English, Infidels, skips chronologically around within the lives of a Moroccan prostitute named Slima and her son, Jallal. It's a novel far deeper than its brief length might suggest as it proceeds, in four parts and a handful of chapters, to give us different perspectives on the two central characters as they drift from various cities in Morocco to Cairo, briefly Europe, and finally, in the novel's entirely unexpected conclusion, back to the heart of Morocco.
Taïa's writing, as with each of his previous novels, is a welcome reprieve from the self-indulgent and fustian. He's here to tell a story and won't be bothered with any framework other than his own. The story comes in self-confessed bursts ostensibly directed (often but not always) at Slima, though sometimes by, or even about, her.
Taïa writes passionately about the power of images and cinema to empower and transform both us and our relationships. As Jallal explains early in the book, "Cinema was invented for this. For making us see our mothers in a new light. Keep them forever. Share them with no reserve, no jealousy. My name is Jallal. I am the son of Marilyn Monroe."
For Jallal, it is the 1954 Western film River of No Return that first provides the opening to escape; for Slima, it is Marilyn Monroe as Kay Weston -- platinum-haired, fiery daughter of the silver screen -- that draws Slima from her initial self-imposed silence. Too powerful for any one medium, Taïa concludes Part I of the novel as Jallal's story merges with the film in a mélange of cinema and image and word and reality and religion, writing, "I want the blessing of Marilyn Monroe. I want her fire... The eyes and hair of Marilyn Monroe confirm my intuition: life doesn't stop. Something happens. I see it. I'm there now. I change realities, really and truly enter fiction, cross the border, take on other colors. Time stops. I'm in the true. In the song. On a tree."
Throughout the novel's four parts, Taïa teaches the reader one of the book's most unutterable truths: that our most important relationships are those that are indefinable, permeable, and exist beyond any worldly proscriptions. Slima is mother and lover and sister and daughter; she's an unyielding devotee of Monroe in Morocco and Egypt and of Muhammad in Saudi Arabia, lying down to die at the Prophet's mausoleum just as she was told to lie down at the graveyard where her infant brother was buried.
In fact, it's each character's various devotions that most define them. The devotion of Saadia is for her son lost in infancy and for her daughter that will carry on her legacy; of Jallal for his soldier-father-brother and for Mahmoud; of Jean-Marie for Slima and for his self-fiction, Mouad; and of Slima for the Soldier, for Marilyn, for Mohammad, and for Jallal. And, arguably, of Taia himself for the infidels and orphans that populate this novel.
The lyrics of River of No Return's titular song, and the 99 names of Allah, all ultimately blur together in a purposeful and powerful combination of image and idol that leads the novel to its conclusion: a reassuring and relieving soliloquy by Marilyn-as-God, or at least as the Messenger of God
If you listen you can hear it call...
There is a river called the river of no return
Sometimes it's peaceful and sometimes wild and free!
Love is a traveler on the river of no return
Swept on forever to be lost in the stormy sea
(Wail-a-ree) I can hear the river call (no return, no return)
Where the roarin' waters fall wail-a-ree
I can hear my lover call "Come to me" (no return, no return)
I lost my love on the river and forever my heart will yearn
Gone, gone forever down the river of no return
Wail-a-ree (Wail-a-ree), wail-a-ree
He'll never return to me! (no return, no return, no return)
One of the main themes of the book was to contrast Slima and Jallal's quasi-religious devotion to old Hollywood and particularly Marilyn Monroe with "real" religious devotion. At the end of Part III, Jallal dies and the last and shortest part of the book is narrated from the perspective of a nameless narrator who acts as God's Messenger welcoming Jallal to Heaven. It doesn't explicitly say she's Marilyn Monroe but it's clear that it is from the fact that the narrator acknowledges her name "before" was Norma Jean Baker and she describes filming River of No Return. So her role as stand-in for God is the natural conclusion to the novel given Jallal and Slima's religious affinity for her and for old Hollywood throughout the novel.
In the end, after all the book's heartache and cruelty, who else could speak for God? Only Marilyn. She welcomes her child home in a confession that combines fantasy and faith as powerfully as any moment in the novel: "And then my legend on earth took on new proportions. Since then, I've been here. At the Gates of Heaven. I greet. I listen. I unite. I judge. I speak on His behalf. I speak about His place. I’m human. Extraterrestrial. Everywhere. Nowhere. Man. Woman. Neither one or the other. Beyond all borders. All languages."
Infidels is about finding one's way out of darkness and finding new ways to love; of destruction and recreation; of the power of man-made religion to liberate and lessen; and of recognizing oneself in the grief of others. It's a literary achievement made even more impressive by the effortlessness with which Taïa delivers. Now beyond his two earlier (excellent) works translated into English, Taïa writes with a poetry and clarity all his own and has unequivocally earned a prime place among some of literature's most celebrated and famous exiled, expat writers.