Garth Greenwell: BOOK REVIEW
The Road to Fez, by Ruth Knafo Setton. Counterpoint Press, 2001. $23.00.
With her promising, perhaps impossibly ambitious
first novel, Ruth Knafo Setton attempts
a (nearly) present day, postcolonial quest-romance.
Brit Lek, the eighteen year old protagonist,
has returned to Morocco after the death of her mother
beneath a dual imperative: to visit the
shrine of a nineteenth century Jewish martyr, Suleika,
and to see (and seduce) her attractive
uncle, Gaby. Along the way, Setton seizes all
opportunities to meditate, sometimes beautifully,
sometimes heavy-handedly, on exile, atrocity, the
position of women in Arab states, and the
relationship between Language, Desire, and
God--three concepts that require, here, their
letters. The book straddles the divides between
politically conscious commentary, philosophical
rumination, and aesthetic play with an at times
strained melange of feminist tract, cultural
history, and fairy tale. Though one emerges from the
novel with a sense that it never quite
achieves the proper proportions of these ingredients,
it is refreshing to see a first novelist
with the confidence to resist an easily delimited
genre or theme, and especially to find one
willing to sacrifice artistic perfection (perhaps even
artistic success) to ambition. And yet, contrary to what one might expect, it is precisely
when the novel is at its most ambitious that it
when ambition slackens, so too does Setton's
Justine, an artist who has settled in Paris, explains to Brit why she returns to Morocco to take her photographs: "I feel as if I'm recreating a world that's dying before my eyes. We've been here in this country for seven centuries, and no one remembers anything! ...A great blur of darkness buries us. I fight it by taking photos of doors and windows and faces."
As an act of memory, a record of a disappearing culture, The Road to Fez is enormously compelling. The novel largely (though not entirely) denies Western stereotypes of Arab nations, and insists always on the fallibility of its own cultural portrait: filtered through the sometimes bewildered consciousness of the American-raised Brit, the book constantly reminds us that its portrayal of Morocco is both biased and incomplete. While I am in no position to judge the accuracy of this portrait, the images of cultural hybridity it presents seem true to a postcolonial condition, the odd juxtapositions and easy or uneasy syntheses of East and West: "Squinting, I pass women in creamy haiks, one dark eye exposed, high heels peeking out from under." Especially effective is the book's representation of Moroccan youth, who feel the draw of the West with particular acuteness: "That night Mani and I go to the Majestic where we hook up with Jacky, Luc, Isabelle, and Mani's few remaining friends who haven't left for Paris or Lucerne. We dance for hours on a hot, tiny red-lit floor, to Mani's idol, James Brown, and Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. ...Here, all languages are broken, colliding: Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Berber dialects, French, Spanish, Ladino, English. We speak in slivers and fragments..."
This hybridity largely frustrates Brit's attempt to find in Morocco a satisfying sense of home, and the book begins with a statement of her lack of moorings: "I hover between two worlds--the New and the Old, belonging to neither, clinging to both." In America, Brit and her family had never been able to make a home that was free of Morocco; instead, their country of birth "threatened to burst free from its prison beneath the cracks in the sidewalk." Returning to Morocco, however, Brit quickly finds that her family there looks back to an even earlier point of origin: "But the heart of the room is the long brass key that hangs in the center of a white wall. One night after dinner, when we all sauntered into this room for mint tea and sweets, Papa Naphtali told us a story about our old house in Toledo, with its orange trees and blue-tiled walls, and he pointed to the key and said: 'One day we'll return home.' Later, Perla explained that he was talking about our family's house in Spain, when our ancestors fled the Inquisition by sailing across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco. But he had described the scent of orange blossoms and the courtyard where we drank wine and watched the moon, so vividly and fondly, it seemed as if we had just left Spain yesterday." And yet even this idealized "home" has to be read as a product of nostalgia: the Jewish communities in medieval and early modern Europe were everywhere marked with signs of un-belonging, of foreignness--it's hard to imagine that Papa Naphtali would feel more at home in medieval Spain than in twentieth century Morocco.
Instead, for Brit's Sephardic Jewish family, "home" is always once-removed, in an infinite regress that several characters in the book attempt to finally ground with the promise of Israel: "Papa Naphtali is too old to leave, especially without being allowed to take out any of his money, but he wants to plant the dream of Israel for the rest of the family... A prayer for Israel...'[M]ay all of you here get to set foot on the sacred soil. I want you to dig out the earth of Israel with your fingers, and hold it in your hands, and know it is alive, that it was alive when Solomon walked there, and that David dug his pebbles out from it. I want you to breathe it in, my children, and tell me how it smells and feels. Next year in Jerusalem!'" But the book is quick to deny any such claims for Israel: for Justine, "Israel, Paris, New York, what does it matter? We've learned to make our home wherever we go. Every home is borrowed anyway"; in the words of Gaby, "There is no promised land, little cat. Every land is a promise, until you get there and enter." And Israel, for Sephardic Jews, is a particularly difficult homeland: "'Don't kid yourself,' says Haim. 'Israel will suffer you too. The Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe see us as Arabs, not Jews. They don't want us anymore than the French do.'"
The difficult negotiations between Arabs and Jews are dealt with admirably by The Road to Fez; the novel refuses to reduce them to simple notions of right versus wrong, good versus evil. Certainly, Brit's family stresses repeatedly the danger of Jews crossing into the Arab world; in fact, the first mention of Suleika, the central figure of the novel's enabling myth, is made in just such a context of warning: "A lifetime of fear clouds my eyes. The very first words Mama Ledicia said to me when I arrived in El Kajda: 'Don't go in the medina. Jews go there and disappear. Janine who went to meet the Arab boy she liked. Never seen again. And Laurette. Same thing. Disappeared. And Suleika. She entered the Arab world, and we all know what happened to her.' She slit her throat with her stubby finger."
Despite these warnings, however, the book is filled with figures who do cross between Arab and Jewish worlds, even if always uncomfortably: Zahra, Brit's accomplice in her attempts to seduce Gaby; and Gaby himself, who finds solace spinning clay among the Arab potters. And it is Gaby who most stringently resists any reductivist response to prejudice: reacting to Brit's anger at having been pulled over--for no reason other than their Jewishness--by an Arab policeman, Gaby says, "[It's degrading] for him too. For fifteen dirhams, he becomes a uniform without a face."
It is precisely this willingness to entertain complexity that is lacking from the book's more interior concerns. In light of the huge ambition of the book's large-scale "cultural" projects, the relationship between Gaby and Brit, which the novel seems to want to make into its emotional core, comes off as lackluster, even trite. The impulse seems like the right one--the sort of tense romance described here might be precisely what the novel needs to provide emotional heft equal to the intellectual heft of the book's best moments. But the prose of these passages falls, at its worst, into clich--and the sort of banality produced by writing that tries too hard to seem "sincere": "He smiles at me. Why? Why doesn't he say something? What's he thinking? How I've thrown myself at him for the past month and a half? I want to go home. I want to get out of this car. I don't want him to touch me. He's my uncle for God's sake. My mother's brother. It's too close, too intimate. I think I'm going to be sick." Fragmented, banal, these staccato sentences attempt to capture the precise thinking of a mind in a particular state; they present themselves as "authentic," as free of "artifice." And perhaps they do resemble what an eighteen year old woman might think driving to a tryst with her uncle. But even if this succeeds in being mimetic, it is a misguided mimesis: if the point is that the sort of adolescent devotion Brit feels for Gaby is banal (and this is not the point--the novel takes itself far too seriously for this to be the point), the writing in which this is conveyed must nevertheless avoid banality. Adolescent romance is a difficult thing to write: Shakespeare got it (Romeo and Juliet), Emily Bronte got it (Wuthering Heights). Ruth Knafo Setton, unfortunately, has let the perhaps unavoidable banality of devotion take over her prose.
Large patches of The Road to Fez are marred by this sort of writing. Happily, though, the book's final section surrenders its claim to sincerity, which allows it to make a much truer claim: one not to earnestness, but to story itself--which is the only legitimate claim narrative can make. These final pages of the novel blur the division, already faint, between the Brit-Gaby romance and the myth of the woman whose shrine they're traveling to see. And here Setton's prose takes off, eschewing staccato "sincerity" for a sinuous fancy: "At that moment the Queen passed on her way to kneel before her pig. She saw the young man and the maid. In a jealous fury, she entered the room and saw the forbidden books. She ordered the young man imprisoned at once, and the maid killed. He was thrown into a dungeon and sentenced to death the following morning. On his cell, he looked at the walnut shell, still green, too soft to crack open. But on the ground he found bits of limestone. He scratched on the wall with the limestone and drew a boat. He touched the boat and the cell wall melted. He sailed away."
The Road to Fez is a remarkably uneven novel--remarkable both for the strength of its achievement and for the extent of its failure. But first books, finally, must be judged on their strengths: it is not that the fine writing in The Road to Fez outweighs the bad, but that the novel's strengths make its weaknesses irrelevant--as text, the novel fails; as indicator of its author's talent, it excites. It would be impossible to predict how far Setton's talent will carry her, but certainly The Road to Fez should be read, and carefully--if not for its own achievement, then for its promise of finer and more even work to follow.
Potentially, might be ...
Potentially, might be ...