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Book Review: Kafka in Tangier

Kafka in Tangier is at its essence a successful concept– a novella which follows the basic plot structure of Franz Kafka’s masterpiece The Metamorphosis.  Yet I would be quick to emphasize, even as a Kafka fan myself, that Kafka in Tangier is an excellent novella in its own right.  It is as though The Metamorphosis plot structure is merely a jumping off point to explore other themes.  

Think of Kafka in Tangier as a sexy The Metamorphosis.

The third-person narrator is like a character unto himself; he has an ironic self-awareness with a tendency to break the fourth wall. The plot is surreal at times.  The author himself describes the work as a “waking nightmare” which is indeed the tone and the world one is drawn into when engaging with this story. Think of it as a sexy The Metamorphosis.  There is a flair for the sensual that Kafka himself certainly never exhibited.  However, author Mohammed Said Hjiouij does share with Kafka a flair for the unusual.  

Jawad meets Kafka in a dream


Within Kafka in Tangier is a helpful summary of The Metamorphosis, to which the novella runs somewhat parallel.  If you don’t remember The Metamorphosis, perhaps Hjiouij’s work will give you an excuse to revisit it.   

Kafka in Tangier’s protagonist Jawad works as a teacher and is an aspiring literary critic, though that dream has been somewhat buried.  This is probably for the better, according to the narrator, considering Jawad’s lack of literary skills.  During the night he works as a vegetable seller, when he isn’t too exhausted from teaching.  

Similar to The Metamorphosis, Jawad wakes up as a monkey-like creature (instead of a beetle).  If that sounds less revolting than The Metamorphosis, rest-assured Kafka in Tangier is equally gross and gruesome. As in The Metamorphosis, Jawad’s family is initially shocked, but then grow to accept the situation as though this is just something that happens– one’s son turns into an otherworldly creature and must not be mentioned.  Combined with the mysticism which is perhaps strong in Tangier, the family views Jawad’s transformation as a curse, perhaps by a vindictive neighbor.   

Jawad’s father Mohammed is a fascinating and complex character. The simmering animosity between father and son is a driving conflict of the novella.  Contrasting with Mohammed, Jawad’s mother Fatima and his sister Hind are charitable towards Jawad (although Hind eventually wears tired of tending to the new monkey-like version of Jawad towards the end of the novella, similar to Gregor’s sister in The Metamorphosis who grows tired of tending to him). 

Mohammed had worked as a bartender in his younger years, where he diligently saved to purchase the apartment in which the family currently resides.  There is a flashback to when Mohammed worked as a bartender during 9-11.  With the exuberance of the Muslim crowd, in this scene one sees how the other half lives:

“Once the surprise passed, the cheering commenced and, for the first time in that bar, exaltations of God’s greatness rang out from the crowd.  Out of the corner of his eye, the father glimpsed two French customers slipping out.  He smiled and announced that the next round was on him.” (19) 

How interesting and scandalous this passage is to read through Western eyes–because let’s be honest, that is more or less how we might have imagined 9-11 was viewed in Muslim countries.  Furthermore, this is part of the purpose of literature, to experience the world through others’ eyes.  The authenticity of Hjiouij’s voice brings us to the very soul of this region in North Africa.  

Jawad’s father is the most religiously devout, but also the biggest hypocrite, which is interesting for a novel in which Islam is a theme.  It is a trope one sees often in Western literature with regards to the hypocritical nature of Christians (well, Hollywood loves that trope the most).  The tension between Christianity and Islam is another theme in the novel, with the French Christian missionaries not portrayed as particularly sympathetic either. 

Jawad’s wife Sara increasingly appears as the villain, with her callous attitude towards Jawad after his metamorphosis and her callousness towards her own baby becomes apparent.  Hind, in her feminine intuition, never liked Jawad’s sexy and furtive wife.  There is a reckoning for Sara: she is murdered towards the end of the novel.  But then, confusingly, Sara shows up in the next chapter as a customer at the cafe where Hind works as a waitress.  This I’m afraid is an incongruity in the novel, unless it is so abstract as that the chronology has been broken without the reader being made aware.  

Jawad’s daughter has down syndrome, which helps explain why he feels so trapped. The two year old is described as having “Mongolian eyes and plump lips” (22).  You won’t find that kind of description in a novel vetted by the American publishing company.  Jawad wonders whether it was “divine punishment” (34) that made his child disabled.  But then, his having been transformed into a monkey-like creature is also a kind of divine punishment, maybe even a way to make him empathize with his unfortunate daughter, as now he himself is an outcast of society.  

There is an effective switch in the point of view as we receive Hind’s perspective via journal entries.  Her voice has a certain bite and feminine bitterness which rings quite true and authentic.  It grounds the tale in a needed way, and gives us a break from the more surreal aspects of the story told from the 3rd person narrator.  During this section of the novella, Hind finds a copy of The Metamorphosis in Jawad’s room and begins to self-consciously imitate that story by suggesting the family take on renters.  It is all part of the delightful literary allusions to Kafka sprinkled throughout Kafka in Tangier

Conclusion: Read this Novel

Kafka in Tangier is a book you want to read twice and form your own theory.   I found myself thinking about the book long into the night, developing my own ideas about what I had read in this fascinating and exciting new novella. 

Hjiouij’s pleasant, discursive writing style is a distinctive voice on the literary scene.  His ability to create backstories for the characters, particularly the father, Mohammed, is impressive indeed.  I would rate this as one of the best new novels I’ve encountered in the last decade or so; this is despite a minor quibble I have with the plot, which I’ve mentioned above.  I would emphasize my praise even more so because the novella is relatively unknown and undiscovered– at least in the U.S.   

Grade: A 

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