[inset_left]The Arch and The ButterflyBy Mohammed AchaariTranslated by Aida Bamia324 pages Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, Doha: May 2014[/inset_left]It is a rather disappointing beginning: the narrator, a middle-aged, Left-leaning Moroccan journalist, receives a one-line letter asking him to “rejoice, Abu Yacine. God has honored you with your son’s martyrdom” in Afghanistan. The frustration and shock emanating from the radicalization of one’s child is not the most unique fiction theme, nor does it necessarily promise very much in terms of form and style. But the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction joint winner, The Arch and The Butterfly, quickly dissipates that initial skepticism by tackling a broad network of themes that keep building to a point where motifs of terrorism and trauma simply cannot hold on their own.
While it is tempting to portray Mohammed Achaari’s first novel as a family saga spanning three generations, narrated by Youssef—Mohamed Al-Firsiwi’s son and Yacine’s father—the book soon spirals beyond the perimeters of the genre. Achaari’s novel is suffused with mundane characters and mythological figures—Bacchus, Medusa, Hercules and Orpheus—and is rife with references to cities from Rabat, Marrakesh and Casablanca to Havana and Madrid. In fact, readers will—like Youssef—find themselves “thinking about all that at once [while unable] to concentrate on one specific detail” and constantly “assailed by various details from contradictory topics.”
The Arch and The Butterfly is—to the dismay of those seeking pure entertainment—a demanding book. It is a difficult read—almost inaccessible to those not expecting a novel tackling an array of topics in a poetic, sometimes aphoristic, style.
When he receives the tragic news of his son’s death in Afghanistan, Youssef’s perception of his physical environment changes almost immediately. He “steps for the first time into a wasteland,” so arid and “desolate” a place that he soon feels “no trace of pain or pleasure or beauty.” Youssef’s sensory impairment takes hold of him. His dilemma now lies in his failure “to make my inner self react.”
The news also takes its toll on his relationships. Youssef avoids making new acquaintances and limits himself to having only two friends. His marriage collapses. But the tragedy earns Youssef a new companion: his dead son’s ghost, “with whom I would share the details of my daily life . . . talking with him for hours” about everything from road works, demonstrations and beautiful women to “revolutions, betrayals and the death of illusions.” People in the street who see Youssef “caught up in conversation” with his new invisible friend soon spread rumors that the bereavement has driven him to the verge of madness.
In their first walk around Rabat, Yacine’s apparition complains to Youssef about the “huge cranes, bulldozers and cement mixers . . . blocking the street” and the capital’s rapidly changing landscape. Before his death in Afghanistan, Yacine “had dreamed of placing a giant steel arch across the [Bou Regreg] river,” an aesthetic architectural touch aimed at giving the impression that the river “ran through the fingers of [Salé and Rabat],” and thus connected the center of Morocco with the periphery.
Morocco’s fast-changing urban landscape dominates Achaari’s novel, and real-estate scandals in Marrakesh and Rabat are one of Youssef’s main concerns as a journalist. He feels betrayed by his friend, Ahmad Majd, a socialist turned tycoon who is involved in one of these scandals. Majd’s biggest project is a nine-floor butterfly-shaped building he believes will “free [Marrakesh] of the spirit of the distant past and bring a bit of frivolity into the city.”
But Majd’s ambitious and “provocative” architectural endeavor faces a legal snag: buildings in Marrakesh cannot be more than four stories high in order not to block the view of the High Atlas Mountains from the center. Of course, Majd manages to circumvent the law, arguing that “the city was a city and the mountain was a mountain,” unable to understand why anyone would “drink their coffee in the street as their sleepy eyes roamed over the High Atlas.”
It is the architectural audacity of the building and its contrast with the restive Marrakesh that Youssef has issue with: “People were struck by this building with its provocative shape, located in the heart of the Medina.” The Butterfly’s interior is more provocative—even “vulgar,” at least to Youssef and his friend Layla. It is an architectural pastiche of British and Asian sculptures, Byzantine mosaics, Persian miniatures, Turkish glassware and a kitsch statue of Bacchus, among others: it “felt like a museum.”
Compared to Yacine’s steel arch—an objet d’art linking Salé with Rabat—the butterfly-shaped building is not just a “vulgar” edifice erected in the middle of a city with a rich history; it blocks the view of the High Atlas, one of Marrakesh’s authentic landmarks. If similar buildings continued to sprout in the heart of the city, Marrakesh “would be like a tramp’s trousers, made up of different coloured patches from various times.”
Youssef’s attack on the transformation of Morocco’s urban identity can at times be overly direct. He criticizes the “palaces’ mixed architectural styles,” concluding that “Marrakesh had, in fact, literally and figuratively lost its authenticity.”
In the novel’s last chapter—the most dramatic and most absorbing—Youssef roams the labyrinthine streets of the old city of Marrakesh, playing the role of the flaneur: “I stared at the faces of the passers-by, almost certain they could not see me, as if I had become a mere vision checking the conditions of the city.” Contrary to his expectations, in the old city Youssef “felt calm and free,” although he admits to being unable to take part in the “tenderness bursting from the sleeping city.”
In this chapter, Youssef’s integration with his surroundings increases and Yacine’s ghost vanishes. The son’s disappearance is contrasted with Youssef’s increasing interaction with passers-by and his physical surroundings. At the entrance of the old city, Youssef comes across two men having a petty argument over olives. Although “unnecessary and useless,” the conversation, Youssef says, “cheered me up . . . and the alley would have been desolate without it.”
Almost immediately a child approaches Youssef, asking him a random question to which he has no clue as to how to answer. Still, he says, he was “pleased by the child’s curiosity.”
A blind tour guide
But it is not only Youssef who has a troubled relationship with his environment: Mohammed Al-Firsiwi, Youssef’s father and Yacine’s grandfather, shares his son’s defective sensory perceptions. Redolent of the image of Tiresias of Thebes, Firsiwi is a blind tour guide and the clairvoyant prophet of the Roman city of Walili (Volubilis).
Firsiwi immerses himself in the history of the area and is often “seen constantly excavating the site for something, though no one knew what.” Firsiwi breaks off his contact with the present and instead “spends his days chasing Hercules, Antaeus, Bacchus, Orpheus, Hylas, Venus, Medusa, Ariadne, Juba and Ptolemy.”
For Firsiwi, the death of his grandson threatens to end the family line. He urges Youssef to have another child—a plea his son shrugs off. In one of his angry fits, Firsiwi castigates Youssef for being “unconcerned about what will happen in the centuries to come because he lives in the present, in restaurants, bars and airports . . . [and] works on fleeting stories and novels that wilt as soon as they are picked up.”
Firsiwi is hard to work out. When asked by Youssef why he buried the statue of Bacchus in the courtyard of an obscure mosque, he simply answers: “I can just imagine the puzzlement of archaeologists in a few centuries’ time asking themselves what Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, was doing in the courtyard of the twenty-first century mosque.” This blind grandfather stands apart from the rest of Achaari’s characters. He can be both mundane and otherworldly. His life remains shrouded in ambiguity. His words are inexplicable and his actions paradoxical and inconsistent.
The Arch and The Butterfly is a reflection on place, identity, authenticity and loss. The protagonists find their habitat in the past: Youssef in the old town of Marrakesh, and Firsiwi in the Roman ruins. As for the present, they feel as out of place as a statue of Bacchus in a mosque.