The Story of ‘Ahmed and Aziz’ in a New French Novel, ‘The Orange Grove’

Larry Tremblay’s story of “children of war” in an unnamed Arab country, The Orange Grove, (trans. Sheila Fischman) has clear echoes of Algerian Francophone author Mohammed Dib’s “The Savage Night.” Nashwa Gowanlock reads Tremblay’s novella through her lenses as a lover of books, a journalist, an Arab, and a translator:

By Nashwa Gowanlock

Like all of Peirene’s novellas, this one is a small package that packs a punch. That’s not to say that there is anything petite about this story. Far from it, the issue The Orange Grove tackles is the complex and age-old one of ethnic conflict, though the topic is handled with much nuance and conspicuously absent political lexicon. The country is deliberately unnamed, which emphasizes and prioritises the universality of the experience it portrays. Through the description of the landscape and the context of an “enemy” invasion, suicide missions and a peace process, there are clear echoes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but elements of the Lebanese civil war and even the current Syrian crisis resonate here too.

Originally written in French by Canadian author Larry Tremblay, The Orange Grove is a unique retelling of what is essentially a children-of-war story. Nine-year-old twins, Ahmed and Aziz, live and play in the shelter of their family’s orange grove before being dealt a suicide mission that is to take the life of one and haunt the other. But what sets this story apart is Tremblay’s efficient and pounding use of language. Short, simple sentences shroud the text, focusing the reader’s attention on the action. The first two paragraphs read almost harmless as we are introduced to the twin protagonists – “If Ahmed cried, Aziz cried too. If Aziz laughed, Ahmed laughed too.’ But the third paragraph takes a sharp and morbid turn with the cutting opening lines: “Ahmed and Aziz found their grandparents in the ruins of their house. Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed in by a beam.” And so the story hurtles along with little time for sentimentality. The grandparents are buried in the beloved orange grove and the father coerced by an influential character into sacrificing one of his sons to avenge the blood of the many victims of the ongoing conflict.

A poet, playwright, short-story writer, essayist, and novelist, Tremblay has penned over thirty books, with many of his characters often facing psychological trauma. And The Orange Grove is no exception. There is plenty of moral dilemma to cause lifelong trauma to the surviving twin and his mother through the choice of twin to be sacrificed.  In the penultimate chapter, Tremblay delivers a statement through one characters’ soliloquy that seemingly underpins the author’s philosophy in writing ‘the other’:

“It was too easy to accuse those who committed war crimes of being assassins or wild beasts. Especially when those who judged them lived far from the circumstances that had provoked the conflicts, whose origins were lost in the vortex of history.”

Reading The Orange Grove with my journalist’s eye, I am tempted to pick fault with it: Is it only ostensibly seeming to humanise the barbaric tactics of the suicidal side? Though this same critic could also note that the “enemy” point of view is absent. The book balances on a precarious fence, or wall even, aptly included in Peirene’s “East and West: Looking Both Ways” series. But the personal story here takes precedence and, through it, the political theme is revealed with an almost predictable conclusion of the futility of war, the overriding victims of which are inevitably children and future generations.

Reading The Orange Grove with my translator’s hat on, and through my own Arab lens, I spot many pleasing choices. Translated from the French by Sheila Fischman, the English text is flavoured with local expressions that have a recognisable ring without the need to stylise it with transliterated vocabulary. The complex mindset of a family seeking to avenge death with more death is explained – though never justified – through recognizable cultural expressions and religious overtones. This is not a story about the Arab world told through a Western prism, but an intimate, understated tale of a family set against the backdrop of a war that has become all too familiar to the global readership. Another delightful feature of The Orange Grove is the female role. Rather than a stereotypically weak, oppressed figure, the mother is cast as a strong, risk-taking character. She manages to manipulate the wretched fate of her sons and family as she navigates her own role in the plot, faces a heart-wrenching dilemma, and ultimately pays the price for her decision.

Despite the depth and breadth of its subject, The Orange Grove is so short and powerful that it reads almost like a screenplay, a likely influence of Tremblay’s experience as a theatre director and actor. Characters often disappear into the distance at the end of a chapter as though being ushered off-stage as stage lights are dimmed. Mood setting is used to impressive effect and description of the landscape, the moon and the sky as seen from the orange grove or the roof, is vivid. We are left helplessly musing on the harrowing events of each chapter as the story skips along its nightmarish way. The book’s denouement leads with unpleasant revelations that are relentless to the very end. Though the writer shuns sentimentality, the combination of a bleak story with such effective, evocative imagery, makes it difficult for the reader of this novella, no matter the political leanings, not to be moved, if not by empathy, then regret.

The Orange Grove has been shortlisted for the Pan-European Euregio Prize 2017 and longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award 2017.

Nashwa Gowanlock is a writer, journalist and literary translator. She has translated numerous works of Arabic literature, including a co-translation with Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp of Samar Yazbek’s memoir, The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria. Nashwa holds an MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.