Friday, June 14, 2024

Of Tragedy and Comedy: A Review of Youssef Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me


By Nureni Ibrahim 

  • Title: A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me
  • Author: Youssef Fadel
  • Translator: Alexander E Elinson
  • Publisher: Hoopoe
  • Number of pages: 220
  • Year of publication: 2016
  • Category: Fiction

‘The production and consumption of text and discourse serve particular purposes. Apart from aesthetic ones, which are studied in poetics and stylistics, texts represent social values and traditions and relate to ideological positions [which] originate in extra-textual structures of reality and society’. – The Taming of the Text, Willie Van Peer

It goes without saying that the discourse of literature cannot be divorced from the discourse of the ideological constructs that shape or instruct the writer’s art. Every literary work is an attempt or a medium of expressing the socio-political and historical challenges of the society. In the discussion of North African literature, Sonallah Ibrahim, Waguih Ghali, Miral al-Tahawy, Tawfiq al-Hakim and Youssef Fadel are writers who reflect the social and political conditions of society in artistic works. In this regard, A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, written by Casablanca-native and novelist Youssef Fadel, could be read as illuminating the inhumanity of the war between Morocco and Western Sahara.

Most, if not all, of Fadel’s literary works are written in Arabic; they have also been translated into English to reach a wider audience. Author of A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me and A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, Fadel is a social realist writer whose interest, in the latter novel, is educating people about the reprehensible war that stirred up Moroccan society in the 1980s. This award-winning novelist and screenwriter has shown his artistic prowess by recreating the history of a key period in Moroccan life in clear and succinct language.

His novel, A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me, translated by Jonathan Smolin, falls into the category of prison and postcolonial literature, providing a bird’s-eye view of imprisonment during the Years of Lead, the reign of King Hassan II, which was a dictatorship marked by violence. The novel A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me is another contribution to postcolonial literature, and the writer focuses on the theme of war between Morocco and Western Sahara, with the tragic and comic aspects of that war being emphasised. Images of war, violence and oppression are depicted in the novel in talking about Morocco and the conflict with the Sahrawi people.

A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me is set during the 1980s phase of the war between the Polisario Front of the Sahrawis and the Kingdom of Morocco. The fictional story has an outstanding narrative structure: a tale told by two comic artists, a father (Baloute) and his son (Hassan). The characters Baloute and Hassan behave similarly with regard to their love for and understanding of women. As Aziza occupies Baloute’s heart, Hassan, likewise, is in love with Zineb. However, the two raconteurs are dissimilar in their approach to comedy. While the father, Baloute, derives pleasure from making the king laugh, Hassan is a political critic whose aim is to pillory political leaders.

Earning his living as a comic writer and performer, the character Hassan uses his satirical sketches to criticise Morocco’s rulers. Hassan, as one of the conscripts, tells the story of the Sahara War to the reader. He equally narrates the romantic relationship that exists between him and Zineb. It is noticeable that Hassan’s love for Zineb is constant, as he keeps thinking about her during the war.

In an attempt to mix tragedy with comedy, putting a smile on the reader’s face, Fadel – through the narrator – satirises the prime minister in the following sentences:

I had been able to put on a few private performances in front of a group of engineers and doctors. In those shows I made fun of the prime minister, who had suggested his government prepare an educational curriculum enumerating the virtues of fasting, which he would then distribute to school and institutes with the goal of having people forgo the habit of eating, because of the exorbitant cost of wheat to the national treasury (p 5).

Philosophically, the novel presents the two sides that laughter brings: life and death. In the writer’s words, ‘Laughter gives life and brings death. He who does not want to die from laughter, wants to be made healthy by it’ (p 13). The narrative provides a vivid example, that of a king who was bedridden and for whom no doctor succeeded in prescribing medication that would bring about recovery. That king’s jester cracked jokes that made the king, on the verge of death, let out a resounding laugh and with it a huge fart that allowed his entire body to breathe easy. The literary implication of this is that Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me foregrounds the role of comedians in society and argues that their role is no joke. In this instance, the body of the king is equivalent to society, and artistic production has the potency of providing remedies to societal ills.

Central to the narrative is the theme of love, love between Hassan, the comedian who finds himself at the war front, and his lover, Zineb, the singer. In the same vein, the love story between Baloute and Aziza is told. In view of the relationships, therefore, a patriarchal ideology develops in the storyline, as some men consider women as those created to quench their sexual desire:

 Can you love a woman who doesn’t sleep in your bed, whose neck you can’t caress, whose breasts you can’t kiss? Can you love a woman whose fruits you cannot savor anytime you want? The love I know, and with which I love Aziza, is her lying on the bed waiting for me to come to her, or sitting next to me waiting for me to take her hand and lead her to the bedroom. Women are bodies created for us, the tribe of men, to rub against as we like, to eat and to drink and to till as we like (p 26).

A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me does not only treat postcolonial issues, it also presents some Marxist thoughts. In the narrative, we read about the conflict that existed between upper and lower classes in Moroccan society during the Sahara War. In one view, the soldiers are not well-paid, despite their brutal experiences at the war front. Through another lens, we see the politicians travelling abroad for medical treatment, leaving the masses to suffer. This Marxist thinking is captured by the writer in the following sentences:

The soldiers quartered in the barracks haven’t received their pay in months and now they’re selling their uniforms and furniture in order to find the means to save themselves. And the ministers? Some of them have gone abroad claiming they needed medical treatment, while the ones who remain stopped going to meetings, where anything could happen, so as not to have to meet the gaze of His Majesty (p 86).

Refracted through a modernist ideological prism, the concept of nihilism is lucidly presented in Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me. We also see how the character General Bouricha portrays the vanity of life. The character General Bouricha sells a cannon for his own private gain, fails to give feedback about the Sahara War to the king, and sends one of the soldiers under his command into the danger zone for refusing to marry his daughter. General Bouricha in the end dies in a fatal accident:

General Bouricha’s car exploded while he was on the road to Agadir trucking his oil. His car was completely incinerated. They didn’t recover anything from the wreckage except for a bit of bone and half a skull (p 177).

Reading through the pages of the novel, A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me is fictional yet portrays some historical figures. The detailed analysis of this is revealed in the novel’s foreword by Alexander E Elinson, where it says:

One might recognise real historical figures, such as Hassan II, General Ahmed Dlimi (d. 1983) who was the king’s right-hand man and commander of forces in the Sahara, the king’s real court jester Mohammed Binebine (d. 2008), and others (p x).

As outstanding as Fadel’s work is, the book itself has a slight defect. There are some avoidable typographical errors in the book. Nonetheless, the description in the novel is excellent. All in all, the narrative is rich with satire and metaphor, highlighting the follies of Moroccan rulers and the state of the people, with tragedy and comedy merged. The novel largely tilts towards postcolonial ideas, though there is a treatment of modernist ideas as well. While A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me is serious in its depiction of socio-political decay, the theme of love and the preoccupation with funny and sexual scenes makes the novel a delight. For everyone seeking knowledge of Morocco’s chequered history, the novel is a worthwhile read.

Photograph: ‘Jester- cool’ by 17 storey

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Nureni Ibrahim
Nureni Ibrahim
Nureni Ibrahim lives and writes from somewhere in Nigeria. As a poet and haijin, Ibrahim has published works in The Mamba Journal of the Africa Haiku Network, Kumasi, Ghana; Shamrock Haiku Journal, Dublin, Ireland; Best ‘New’ African Poets 2016 Anthology, Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon, and many more. He was a Wawa Book Review Young Literary Critics Fellow.

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