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Abdellah Taïa’s Infidels is a story about the protagonist Jallal’s fall–out of boyhood, into love, out of innocence, into Jihad. Readers of Taïa will already be familiar with his writing style that uses short and oftentimes simple sentences, the reading of which produces a lyrical cadence to mesmerize the reader. As such, the author is able to convey with both grace and economy even the most hard-hitting and difficult of stories. Infidels does not represent a deviation from this style. Rather, it represents an evolution in Taïa’s career as a storyteller through its incorporation of a whole cast of characters who offer to the text their own stories and confessions.
As with all of Taïa’s stories, it is difficult to categorize Infidels: it is a bildungsroman, it is a travel narrative, it is poetry, it is fiction. The book begins in Morocco where Jallal, attempts to coax his mother Slima to move to a new quarter where they can begin a new, unblemished by taint of her trade in the eyes of their neighbors. The son of an introductrice, Jallal has been introduced to the world of homosexuality and prostitution in the hammam and now seeks to spit in the face of the world. Infidels follows Jallal as life takes him across North Africa, Europe, and beyond.
Though the narrative arc of Jallal’s story would be no less compelling were Taïa to have elected to relate it exclusively through Jallal’s character, he instead employs a host of characters– Jallal’s mother, his grandmother, his stepfather, Marilyn Monroe–who weave an intricate web of their memories and histories that set their own falls alongside that of Jallal. It is through these other characters that the reader is introduced not only to the characters of Jallal’s life, but also their true pasts and the events that shaped them–the comforting words of dead saints, the important role of prostitute witch doctors, a felled tree that is later turned into a canoe, the agony of three years of torture, a cathartic experience while completing the Hajj. All of these have a place in Infidels and all of these invariably shape the life of Jallal. In this way, Taïa’s writing is at once a fiction and a philosophical reflection on the nature of the human experience.
Infidels does not shy away from recounting the harsh realities of life in Morocco, the painful truths of constant geographical uprooting, or the endless struggle for a place in the world. Indeed, it is through such moments that Taïa is so poetically able to tie his characters together as they each search for the same thing: home. Through this incorporation of multiple voices and diverse histories, Taïa produces a tightly woven narrative that tears at the heart and offers a new consideration of human desire.
Both stunningly beautiful and utterly heartbreaking, Abdellah Taïa’s Infidels is a novel that will linger in the reader’s memory. In truth, when reading this book, Taïa’s poetic writing style will draw the reader into the text: he will want to spit on the faces of Slima’s neighbors, she will want to cry at the beauty of Marilyn Monroe’s face on the color television set. It is this ability of Taïa’s writing that has secured his place among the most promising contemporary authors. Indeed, Infidels is a powerful book that is sure to be remembered as one of Taïa’s greatest.
By Abdellah Taïa (translated by Alison Strayer)
Seven Stories Press
Paperback, 9781609806804, 160 pp.