Award-Winning Moroccan Novelist Youssef Fadel Walks with A Beautiful White Cat
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It’s as a playwright that Youssef Fadel appears at this year’s Paris book fair, Livre Paris (March 24-27), where Morocco is the guest of honor. Yet the Casablanca native is also a celebrated novelist: His A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me won the 2014 Prix du Maroc du Livre and went on to be shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. An earlier novel, Hashish, won Morocco’s Grand Atlas Prize in 2000.
Strangely overlooked is Fadel’s novel A Beautiful White Cat Walks With Me, published in Arabic in 2011 and now in artful English translation by Alexander E. Elinson.
The book is set against the backdrop of war between Morocco and the Western Sahara, told in alternating sections by a young comedian who’s sent off to fight, and his father, who works in the palace as the king’s private jester. These two characters—who are both similar and opposite—could be fodder for slapstick. But Fadel plays it differently. The novel’s “comic” sections are discomfortingly tragic, while the tragic scenes are often darkly funny.
The main characters are echoes of real men: King Hassan II (1929-1999), General Ahmed Dlimi (d. 1983), and real-life court jester Mohammed Binebine (d. 2008). The book’s events also echo real power struggles, protests, and the conflict with the Sahrawi desert people. Yet A Beautiful White Cat Walks With Me doesn’t name the king, his war, or the foreign dignitary who has come for talks. Elinson’s foreword provides historical context for those who want it, but the book’s absurdist appeal is exactly in Fadel’s elisions, which leave enough space for us to see the king as the Almohad caliph Muhammad III with his thirteenth-century jester, or US President Donald Trump, with a jester who works in the 2017 White House.
The first section begins with jester Balloute’s grotesque description of human laughter, which he calls a “hurricane that fills veins, eyes, and mouths.” It “squeezes one man’s midsection, his cheeks reddening and the blood almost bursting from his pores.” The sounds of laughter are even more ridiculous, a mélange of animal noises from a braying donkey to “the clucking of a chicken to the cackle of a hyena.”
It’s not particularly fun when the jester tells his jokes for the king. Balloute is wracked by performance anxiety, and he is constantly jockeying with a hunchback, as well as ministers, in order to keep his privileged position. For the most part, the jester is played as a straight man, with a comically blind allegiance to his king. When the unnamed foreigner comes to negotiate on the question of war, the jester wonders: “Can His Majesty not solve a minor issue like the Sahara on his own, just as he has done before with everything else he faced?”
When the meetings are over, the jester jokes—at a Moroccan minister’s expense—before the foreign dignitary. The jester willfully misunderstands when the dignitary begins "to pull nervously at his suit as if it were causing him some discomfort.” Balloute brings his straight-man myopia into his personal life as well, particularly when relating to his third wife, who is nearly forty years his junior.
If Balloute the jester isn’t funny when he’s telling jokes, he is funny when he’s trying to understand the world. Young Aziza, for instance, should be grateful for her association with him. When he recalls that she attempted suicide days before their wedding, he does so with a shrug: “Who can understand women?” He imagines that, under the bandages on her wrists, there were “minor cuts, signs of her love[.]”
When it comes to women, father and son are very similar. Both Balloute and his sketch-comedian son Hassan have a hard time understanding why women are constantly getting the better of them. Hassan is much more sensitive to the world around him, but he still can’t quite grasp his wife Zineb. While at the front, he believes she’s sick at home. In truth, she’s gone to live in an open relationship with a pair of socialist doctors.
All male-female relationships in the book are portrayed as prickly, especially those between poor men and more powerful women. After refusing to wed the general’s spoiled daughter, Hassan is sent off to die. Balloute’s second wife, meanwhile, has the jester do her dirty work while she gallivants with her first husband.
Yet the father and son are opposites, too. The father’s humor is about keeping the powerful feeling strong, while the son’s humor questions power. In one instance, Hassan writes a sketch about a man pushed aside at the butcher’s by a rich woman buying cuts of meat for her dog. Hassan is told his work is leftist and political, although he doesn’t have much love for the socialists.
As far as the government is concerned, Hassan’s comedy falls into a gray space. Much as with Fadel’s novels, it’s not clear if Hassan’s writing is authorized or not. When he brings a sketch to a TV company, near the end of the book, at first, he’s welcomed. But later, Hassan is told the comedy doesn’t meet management’s “standards.”
The universe Fadel opens up in A Beautiful White Cat Walks With Me continues in his next novel, A Rare Blue Bird That Flies with Me, translated by Jonathan Smolin. Unfortunately, Smolin’s translation is not as fluid as Elinson’s. But those caught up in the world of the Beautiful White Cat might well make their way through some choppy sentences in order to see what happens next.