Moroccan novelist Mohsine Loukili’s The Prisoner of the Portuguese is one of the six novels shortlisted for the 2022 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. This conversation with Loukili will be followed, tomorrow, by an excerpt in translation from the shortlisted novel.
By Leonie Rau
There have been a surge of historical novels from the Maghreb, particularly Algeria and Morocco, that re-approach history during French and other European occupations. Do you describe your novels as historical novels? What opportunities do you think setting a novel during a previous period offers the writer that novels set in the present or future do not? ريح الشركي was also set in a similar time — what draws you to this particular period?
Mohsine Loukili: My novel The Prisoner of the Portuguese is not a historical novel in the strict sense of the word. It is a literary text that takes the side of imagination more than it cares about historical facts. History is important with regard to the novel, as is philosophy, for example, but in the end, it is nothing more than a tool, a means that the novel harnesses to serve artistic, aesthetic, and humanist purposes. I do not use the novel to serve history as much as I use history to serve the novel.
I have written several novels, among them The Winds of August (رياح آب), Fragments (شظايا), and In Hatred of Borders (في كراهية الحدود). These are works that discuss the present, and I’ve written others that draw from history. Each choice is dictated by certain conditions and struggles. History is of distinct importance. We need to look to our past. This past is dangerous and very important, because it is not just what has happened—it is, in a way, a continuous present. Here the novel comes in to show us ourselves: how we were, how we are, and how the past continues to shape us. The novel can therefore, by means of history, ring the alarm bells and tell us which principles of human behavior should not persist. The novel does this while still upholding its grand mission: creating beauty, enjoyment, and continuously renewed creation.
Yes, the novel ريح الشركي dates back to the same period in the history of Morocco and the world [as The Prisoner of the Portuguese]. Why then this focus on this particular era?
There are many reasons too long to explain here, but I will make do with mentioning the most important considerations. First among these is the fact that this period was a decisive one in the history of the world. The year 1492, for example, witnessed the discovery of America, the fall of Granada, and the resulting change in Morocco’s social fabric due to the immigration of Andalusis. Global trade routes and the balance of power also changed. In short, it was a turning point in human history. From another perspective, Morocco saw during that same period the rise of a new political power, as the Saadians installed a political regime that would continue in Morocco for many centuries. This in itself actually deserves repeated attention and deep consideration. It is our past that shaped our present. We cannot know ourselves well unless we know our past well. Certainly, any effort to know the past is necessarily an effort to know the present.
You talked about the germ of your novel coming during a visit to Essouira: the Portuguese walls, the image of a particular man, and how you began the novel in January 2020. Was it by coincidence that the novel takes place during the time of a plague and famine, and you were also writing it during the “plague” of Corona? Did you feel the differences and similarities between these two epidemics?
ML: The seed of the novel came to me during a recreational visit to the Moroccan city of Essaouira. Yes, it is true, the great things in our lives happen by chance, but let me say that what appears to be a coincidence is really only part of a strict system. I saw the storyteller and his monkey, and the spark of the novel was born. Now I know that I only traveled to Essaouira to see the storyteller and his monkey. I only saw the storyteller and his monkey to write this exact novel. Between two epidemics.
I started writing the novel in January. We had not yet fully comprehended the epidemic that was about to break out. The plague was part of the novel because it was an important part of the history of that period in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. My entry into quarantine and the epidemic sweeping the world was, on the one hand, a terrible slip into the past. We didn’t think that an epidemic could do all that to us. It was also, on the other hand, a slip into the world of the novel. People were facing plague and hunger, and I was facing the threat of the epidemic and its repercussions.
In fact, there were many points of similarity between the plague that kills in the context of the novel and the Covid pandemic that kills humanity now—a similarity between the past and the present, as we are, first and foremost, the same people facing death. The contexts and stages of technological development differ, but this does not make a big difference; man remains himself in the face of death itself.
All this gave great momentum to The Prisoner of the Portuguese and added a very special color to my relationship with the characters. At one point, I saw in the hero’s salvation my personal salvation. Yes, it was our joint salvation.
You have talked about visiting historical sites in Morocco. How else have you researched the period? What do you think is the historical novelist’s responsibility — between accuracy and imagination?
ML: I visited as many historical sites as was possible during the time of the epidemic, which restricted me greatly. In compensation, both the internet and printed sources constituted important wells of knowledge for me. I was primarily interested in getting to know the mentality of a Moroccan living at that time. Books were an important part of the narrative game, and I will mention a book that I liked very much. It is the book The Saadian State of Takmdart (الدولة السعدية التكمدارتية), by an unknown author. The historical novelist’s responsibility, in my view, lies in accurate investigation of historical facts, while being cautious of the absent voice that was obliterated by defeat, so that what we write won’t give substance to the saying that “history is written by the victors.”
Are there other historical novels or novelists you admire?
ML: I was impressed by many historical novels, as there are many novelists who work history into literary narration. From among Arab writers, I really admire the novel Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan. I consider it a unique literary masterpiece.
For the novel you finished recently, Neighborhood of the Single Women, it seems this one takes place in contemporary Casablanca? How were your considerations different when writing a novel set in our times?
ML: As I mentioned earlier, I oscillate between the past and the present in my writing. After The Prisoner of the Portuguese with its historical character, I returned to the present. It’s like two sides of a coin. I am working on a serial and interconnected literary project, where each text is in the end a piece of the general scene that I am working on. Past and present alternate, just as day and night succeed each other. Of course, with different eras, a number of considerations differ. Each era has its own characteristics, rules, and idiosyncrasies, but, in the end, it serves the same literary and humanist project.
It seems that in both these novels—Neighborhood of the Single Women and The Prisoner of the Portuguese—,the characters are facing extremes of hunger, want, and oppression? What draws you to characters facing extreme difficulties?
ML: In both novels, the characters face real difficulties. Human life in both the past and the present is and was no picnic. Whoever reads about history knows the size of what man has created for man. A remark by the Arab writer Abdelrahman Munif comes to mind: “Just living is an adventure.” Let us also say that placing characters in difficult contexts, such as facing death, is a true existential test. You can get the most out of it. In my view, literature is concerned with human suffering. Just as much as it seeks to create beauty and pleasure, it is also concerned with revealing humanity’s pain and sorrows.
Finally, could you tell us about your next project? Are you working on anything right now?
ML: There is actually more than one project. I am considering various projects of novels—I want to go with one I am comfortable with, and whose characters I am drawn to. I live with the characters for many months, so I have to choose my companions well.
Mohsine Loukili is a Moroccan writer, born in Taza, Morocco, 1978. He has won numerous prizes for plays, short stories and novels. He published his first short story collection Dawn of Rage in 2009, then his debut novel Winds of August (2013), which was awarded the 2013 Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity. His novel Rih al-Shirki (2016) was shortlisted for the Sheikh Zayyed Award, in the Young Author category, and his short story collection Lostness (2016) won the Ghassan Kanafani Prize for Narrative.
Leonie Rau is ArabLit’s editorial assistant. She is about to graduate from her MA degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Tübingen, Germany. She is also an aspiring literary translator with a particular interest in Maghrebi literature. Her translations have appeared on ArabLit and in ArabLit Quarterly and Guernica. She can be found on Twitter @Leonie_Rau_.