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Here in the United States, it’s easy to become jaded about the coming out narrative. It can feel like a story we’ve read one time too many, one that has somehow become commodified, fraught with predictability. But every once in a while a novel comes along that shatters our jaded state and renews our faith in the queer coming of age genre. Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army is one such book.
Salvation Army is Taïa’s third novel, the first to be translated into English from the French, in a fluid translation by Frank Stock. Openly autobiographical, it tells the story of Taïa’s coming into being as a gay man in Morocco. In first person, the narrator Abdellah recounts tales of his childhood in Salé, his adolescent adventures in Tangiers, his wanderings as an adult in Marrakech and Rabat, and his studies and travails in Geneva, as well as his dreams of moving to Paris (where the author is now based). Not only are we given a clear window onto the state of queerness in Morocco, but we are also offered soulful insights into the ambiguous exchange of identity and desire between Arabic cultures and Western Europe.
However, to reduce this book to an ethnographic document or mere monograph of sexual identity would be a mistake. For what’s truly remarkable about this novel that falls into the category of “auto-fiction” that is popular in France and slowly catching on here is Taïa’s delicate use of language and his poetic, sublimely honest point of view. Profoundly erotic, the novel is shot through with the narrator’s recounting of his forbidden desires– Freudian yearnings for his parent’s bed, incestuous longings for his older brother. We also learn of the delirious enactment of those desires: three-ways on trains, brief encounters with older men in Moroccan cinemas. All these moments are simultaneously rendered with a lightness of touch and rawness, the combination of which is startling. Witness the following passage, where the narrator writes of an encounter with a stranger in a public toilet in Geneva:
“Slowly, carefully, he unzipped my fly, gently pulled my penis out and popped it into his mouth to get it up. … He seemed enraptured and swallowed my sperm, every last drop of it, with his eyes closed. Then he got up, wiped his lips and chin with his handkerchief, kissed me on the neck, on both cheeks and the lips. …He stuck his right hand in his jacket pocket and pulled out an orange. … Afterwards, the pleasure I got from holding the orange under my nose and smelling its exquisite sweetness made me shoot again.”
Deftly achieving that most difficult balance between the unselfconscious and the highly refined, Taïa reminds us of both the delight and sorrow that accompanies most pleasure in life. His entanglement with a Swiss lover Jean truthfully explores the bliss and tedium of relationships, the rigorous education we receive through love. Whether he is describing the odor of semen or an orange, of a man or a bakery, his sensibility is exquisite. He intuitively writes from the expansively libidinal perspective philosopher Elisabeth Grosz articulates, the idea that Eros pervades every aspect of life, and above all, writing itself.
I don’t wish to give the impression that the story is comprised of just one erotic encounter after another, for the pleasures and strengths of this book are many. The story unfolds in a clear, organic manner, moving back and forth between Morocco and Switzerland, past and present. The writer’s perspectives on family, culture, love, heartbreak, loneliness, ambition and the exilic resonate strongly, full as they are of quiet insights and a gentle irony that’s a far cry from the cynicism that all too often passes for the ironic. Slowly the book builds to a general articulation of ontological disquiet that’s breathtaking:
“My life was changing. I was becoming this whole other person, someone I didn’t even know yet. And I would get to laugh, cry, learn things, like things, disappoint people, disappoint myself, make mistakes, get ahead no matter what …sing, dance, be alone, be around new people, panic, shout, run, die a little…”
As the back cover of this book reminds us, the publication of this stunning novel is “both a literary and political event,” for Taïa is the first openly gay autobiographical writer to be published in Morocco. What’s most astonishing is the calm and tenderness with which Abdellah Taïa overcomes this prohibition. Reading Salvation Army will do that most transgressive of things: make you happy to be alive. Profoundly moving, it breathes new life into the story of coming into being.
Paperback, 152 p, $14.95