BUILT ON SAND
Mohammed KhaÔr-Eddine (trans. Pierre Joris & Jake Syersak), Agadir, DiŠlogos, 2020
Reviewed by Will Cordeiro
Today our most sacred cliché is that all writing is political. And yet, current literary culture often overlooks a tension between writing that seeks political efficacy or has an activist agenda, on the one hand, and the avant-garde, on the other, which is often defined by its difficulty, intransigent opacity, or shifty points-of-view. How can a work be a rallying cry, foment solidarity, or enable its readers to advance some definite program if they can't even agree on what the text itself is trying to say?
We live in an age that expects comprehensible "messages" from literature and art, as if artworks operate in a communicative fashion. We are impatient with the vagaries of interpretation, let alone anything that resists interpretation. There is too little time. Too much to read. Our exigencies feel too urgent. Everyone's eager to either bury their head or draw a line in the sand. We do not want to dwell over the ambivalence of a thorny text. We want the text to usher us out into the world again, to produce some change—a revolution—in society. Perhaps this aporia explains why experimental literature, with its long tradition of raising political consciousness and pushing art toward a reckoning about its social responsibilities, is ironically now on the outs in our contemporary scene.
What do we make then of a novel, such as Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine's Agadir, which is at once a virulent political tract and an unruly literary experiment? This postcolonial novel from the turbulent ‘60s, in a timely translation by Pierre Joris and Jake Syersak, might help us dust off some of our more au courant commonplaces.
In Agadir, an inspector arrives to a leveled city in the desert, a site of ruins after a quake. The ruins themselves, it appears, have vanished into sand. History has been erased. The inspector is tasked with bringing "matters to a conclusion." He is uncertain what the distant authorities expect of him. Why did they send him here? He decides "to leave the work in abeyance." No order may be managed in such a place, he thinks; this Moroccan outpost, Agadir, has returned to an expanse of creeping dunes between the Atlas Mountains and the sea. Still, he must write a report. Nothing gets done. Days go by. He wastes time staring at the wastes around him.
A man who has lost everything, a ragged wanderer, is irate and demands the inspector find his house. This ragged man threatens to assassinate the inspector. Lowlifes crawl from the vortex. Awful creatures emerge from the sandpits. They may be the afflicted inhabitants and hangers-on of the razed city. Or perhaps they are all a theatrical phantasmagoria of the narrator's overheated imagination? Or haunted figures of the dead? At any rate, this hallucinatory menagerie of characters enacts a seedy drama in which the inspector is increasingly implicated and yet passive. Widows, peasants, caliphates, anarchists, cooks, tax collectors, day laborers, students, and strangers make their appeals. It becomes evident that the city is a palimpsest of repeated wars, double-dealing, torture, colonialism, destruction. And yet, as the inspector sinks deeper into this quagmire, his power to help anyone—himself included—diminishes. He's paralyzed under the weight of their collective demands.
The inspector observes, "The city oozes... My city that I carry along in my briefcase." Almost seventy pages later, the phrase is repeated, "the city oozes." If the oozing city is no more certain than the drifting sands on which it rests, the documents in the inspector's briefcase possess no more validity than the shifting, unreliable points-of-view that voice them. The fate of the inspector, too, is to become bereft of any heritage or homeland, going deeper into the cavern of his own raving madness, consumed ever downward into the quicksilver quicksand of his doubts and delusions. The novel's evasive story positions its reader, like the narrator, as an exile from the ground (or document) one is charged to investigate.
Yet, I'm chagrined to reconstruct this shipshape, snip-snap précis of a plot. Agadir exists in the outer orbits of novel-hood, on the edge of even intelligibility itself at times. Everything dissolves into the welter of interpretation, into a watery mirage. Characters evaporate. Interior monologues manifest themselves in outward action sequences. Rants crossfade into reminiscences. Sections switch and swirl and swivel like haboobs, hoovering up the dusty trail you took to arrive at them. Each vantage point disappears its vista into thin air, leaving you with no way back. Plotlines shatter. Sentences hit redo. Streams of consciousness travel underground, mix and muddy, flashflood out again. The city, like the novel, remains to be reawakened and created anew: the novel, the city, is only the ruins and slough of its own becoming. The meaning of the book sifts through one's fingers at every grasp. The city oozes.
Here, by way of example, is a brief excerpt from a spiraling, pages-long sentence that goes meta, likely describing the novel's own architecture:
... thus a city that would not be one in the sense in which this word has been interpreted til now BUT AN UNUSAL LAIR THOUGH NO LESS MEANINGFUL SO THAT I NO LONGER DRAG MYSELF THROUGH THE LOUSY MACABRE STREET WHEN I LOOK UNDER MY ARMPIT LIKE THE PIGEON UNDER HIS WING TO CATCH A GLIMPSE OF THE VIOLENT AND CURSED TOOTH OF DEATH AGAINST WHICH ONE HAS STRUGGLED AND THE GENIUS OF THE MISSHAPEN RACE HAS SLOWLY FORMED ITSELF THE STREETS WILL NO LONGER EXIST BANNED STRUCK OUT BY ONE OBSTINATE STROKE IN THE MANNER OF THE NEW PAINTERS WHO LIMIT THEMSELVES TO DRAWING PLANS OR CODES WITHOUT EVER ACHIEVING THE LAND REGISTRY IT IS TIME TO BRING UP TO DATE THE FLOURISHING OF HOMO SAPIENS AN ANTIQUATED ALBEIT DISTINGUIHSED THING WHILE THE HOUSE WOULD GROW AND INCORPORATE ITSELF INTO HEAVEN AND HEAVEN WOULD HAVE NO REPROACH TOWARD EARTH AND GOD WOULD BE THE MONUMENTAL ZERO OF MY EYE WHERE EVERYTHING FOUNDERS thus a city that would be a city in the sense in which that word had been badly introduced into our mechanical annals that prescribe more than they create...
The onrushing run-on finally ends with "The Problem: should one build on the site of the dead city?"
As you read, you become the city. The city is forever becoming. As such, the book chews you up and vomits out an olio of granules and particulates, a slippery and viscous paste. Your ideas of it will fail. Boredom, frustration, confusion are all necessary parts of the reading experience: features, as the maxim goes, not bugs. The book acts as a willful provocation, subverting its own forward momentum, backtracking, truculently buckling, setting up tripwires and trapdoors, tricky digressions and long bricks of texts, keeping you off-balance, goading any assumptions by which it might be bound.
But there are pleasures, too, in tumbling down the novel's sinkhole and having one's understanding of the story digested by its entrails, pleasures which are inextricable from the novel's interpretive challenges. One extended scene is written in playscript format with a fabular bestiary of characters. At its climax, the narrator is caught in a shootout between the Parrot and the Naja. Inexplicably, the narrator states in the stage directions:
The bullets, need I repeat, ricochet off my hip-bones, my forehead, my fingernails. Not even a scratch! The Parrot wails. The Naja has kept his promise. Dead. Little cuttlefish girls ferry their ink over to me in their mouth.
This moment—when the little cuttlefish girls appear out of nowhere, swimming alongside the ricochet of bullets—caught me by surprise. I put the book down and cracked a goofy smile. I read it again and giggled. The embodied yet impervious narrator had somehow been transported to an underwater circus act with synchronized swimmers out of some Busby Berkeley spectacle. He stood in the crossfire, surrounded by fairyland creatures that delivered the very ink that enlivened its pages.
I gave myself over to the sheer flux and flamboyant weirdness, giving up any attempt at decoding the story's elaborate symbology or elusive narrative structure. Indeed, I reflected, the novel was both a Kafkaesque parable and a surrealist fantasia, a Mennipean satire in the vein of Penguin Island and a French nouveau roman; yet, none of those generic labels helped me to comprehend its eccentricity. Its heteroglossia of opposed voices and viewpoints rendered moot any synoptic containment I might impose. What could I do but hang on and enjoy the ride? Still, that nagging sense of vexation, of trying to piece together some coherence from the novel's dissipating rubble, perhaps was the point.
Nonetheless, for such a fanciful, outlandish anti-novel, it might seem surprising that Agadir is also a romanàclef of sorts. Indeed, Khaïr-Eddine even claimed the book was "not a novel but a political essay" in one interview. Early in his career, Khaïr-Eddine, a Moroccan of Berber ethnicity, really was sent to Agadir as an inspector after it experienced a devastating earthquake in 1960 that totaled the city.
Agadir has been refashioned, colonized, invaded, and resettled since the 14th century. Portuguese, Arabs, Berbers, Dutch, and French all occupied the town at one point. In 1731 an earthquake leveled the city for the first time. In 1913, after the Moroccan rebellion of 1911, the French expanded their troops in Agadir, whereupon the Germans threatened to move in gunboats, resulting in a territorial skirmish over African colonies that precipitated WWI. In 1956, when Morocco gained independence from France, King Muhammad V assumed power, which presented new problems. As Khalid Lyamlahy writes in the book's introduction, "Post-independent disillusionment and the challenge of intellectual and cultural decolonization were at the core of Khaïr-Eddine's early poetic initiatives." Indeed, as a Berber, he faced a double imperialist regime—not only France's colonization of Morocco, but Arabic Morocco's repression of its indigenous Berber culture.
The novel, published in 1967, was written in French shortly after Khaïr-Eddine went into voluntary exile in Paris in 1965 after witnessing the bloody repression of student protests in Casablanca. By 1972, the regime of King Hassan II had tortured the dissident poet Abdellatif Laâbi, Khaïr-Eddine's close literary comrade and fellow member of the Souffles group. And so, while the earthquake had a literal reference to real-world events, it acted no doubt as a parable, too. Khaïr-Eddine stated that he intended his novel "to symbolize the political and social earthquake which has been devastating the Third World for a few years: a struggle against neo-colonialism and renunciation."
Khaïr-Eddine's self-professed "linguistic guerrilla warfare" in Agadir deconstructs French through cryptic hijinks and narrative hijacking, here expertly rendered into handsome yet uncanny English by Joris and Syersak. In the novel, the conventional logic of our reading practices becomes a rope of sand offered one who excavates lower into its archeological depths. Ultimately, the text's troubled signification not only reflects the narrator's own progressive madness, but it also acts as a way to endue skepticism and reflection in its readers. One must confront the seep and erosion of contending civilizations, the ghostly remains of historical constructions and frameworks built on a foundation of vanished developments. It forces one to question cherished assumptions and rethink values and test one's own hypotheses in the ever-unfolding narrative designs in which one descends, inextricably embedded. And what could be more political than that?