Fouad Laroui’s nine short stories, translated by Emma Ramadan, featuring an introduction by Laila Lalami, and collected under the somewhat clunky (if alliterative) title of The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers, all grapple in some way with the question, “What would it be like… a world where everything was foreign?” They are populated by men and women navigating complicated situations while geographically and culturally far from home. Many of these characters, like the author, are Moroccan.
Laroui writes in dialogue, both interior and exterior, which gives the collection the feel of oral storytelling. He has a gift for capturing the patterns and rhythms of conversation, and this skill allows him to bypass the false constructs of traditional narrative points of view. Stories are being told, but not to us. We become eavesdroppers, lingering at the edges of the audience in order to hear what is being said.
Several of the stories are linked in that they feature the same group of friends: men who meet regularly at the Cafe de L’Univers in Casablanca. They drink tea, laugh, tease each other, and ultimately serve as a framing device. In “Khouribga, or the Laws of the Universe,” the narrator makes several false starts as he fends off interruptions.
“One day,” Ali confided in us…
“Wait, let’s order first.”
(What are you going to have? I dunno… You? etc.)
Five minutes later:
“One day,” Ali confided in us…
“Or rather ooonnnnne night,” crooned Hamid.
“Stop, let him talk!”
“Good God! If we can’t coo along…”
“Except you’re not cooing innocently, you’re doing it just to bother him.”
“Me? You accuse me of being some kind of provocateur? Etc.”
Five minutes later:
“It was last year. I was freelancing for La Tribune de Casablanca—we have to pay for our studies after all…”
Eventually Ali manages to explain how he was once sent to Khouribga, a Moroccan city with a population of approximately 216,000, to write a newspaper story on “men who matter”. Everyone he interviews points to a man named Bouazza as the person they go to for advice and information. Ali attempts to find this mysterious man on whose council so many of the town’s leading citizens depend. It’s obvious fairly early on that the identity of Bouazza will introduce a twist into the narrative, and yet the knowledge detracts nothing from the reader’s enjoyment. Laroui’s keen sense of humor is transformative, rendering the most mundane plot delightful.
Not all the stories are comedic, but even his more serious offerings show off Laroui’s playful side. “Dislocation” is an Oulipo-like exercise in which the narrator silently repeats the same question to himself as he walks home from work. He does this fifteen times, adding words incrementally until the sentence expands into a paragraph, the paragraph into several pages of text.
What would it be like, he asked himself, walking slowly in the direction of his house, where his wife Anna was waiting for him—sweet, kind Anna, whom he ended up marrying in order to settle down (isn’t that what it was called, in times past, in the world of Parisian courtesans?—Oh Maati, you and your French references… and sometimes she would add: You aren’t even French, you’re Moroccan.)—a world where everything was foreign?
“Dislocation” ends abruptly when our protagonist arrives home. His question still resonates, but he is surprised to find that it matters a little less than it did half an hour before. Laroui revisits the theme of being trapped in one’s own head, disconnected from your surroundings and alienated from those you love.
Most of these stories play to the ridiculous. Some are even slapstick in their humor. The titular Dassoukine is sent by the Moroccan government to buy flour from Brussels during a grain shortage. He is instructed to get the best price possible. A series of coincidences is set off when his pants—the only pair he brought with him—are stolen from his hotel room. “Belgium really is the birthplace of Surrealism,” Dassoukine begins. The travesty that follows is similar to a classic Chaplin or Marx Brothers film. But beneath the hijinks Laroui manages to place a kernel of pathos—in this instance a reminder of the politics of globalization and its inherent imbalance of power.
Fouad Laroui’s prose and plots are more complex than they appear. He plays with a variety of narrative forms. In “What’s Not Said In Brussels,” two lovers from different cultures meet in a Belgium city, each planning to end the affair. As we wander with them through the rooms of a museum we are privy to their inner thoughts. “Fifteen Minutes As Philosophers” is written as a play, complete with stage directions. Laroui seems to enjoy experimentation, but he subordinates it to the plot. He is, in many ways, a traditional storyteller who shapes his tales for modern times
It would be difficult to find a correlation between this book and last year’s Sphinx by Anne Garretta (an equally gifted, but very different, writer) other than Emma Ramadan, who translated both books. She is something of a chameleon, able to absorb a writer’s prose and allow it to dominate the new text, obscuring all traces of her own voice in the process. We like to pretend that is always the case, but any regular reader of translations knows it’s not. I would argue that the success of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez in English has as much to do with Edith Grossman’s distinctive (and elegant) prose as it does the author’s. And it is definitely true of Chris Andrews’ translations of Cesar Aira. Though Ramadan is younger and less experienced, it’s nearly impossible to detect her fingerprints on the finished work. This is a rare gift.