All said and done

The Last Friend

by Tahar Ben Jelloun

TAHAR BEN JELLOUN IS A Moroccan novelist who writes in French. He has won the Prix Goncourt, and in 2004 won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for The Blinding Absence of Light, a remarkable and harrowing novel. The Last Friend is less grim, more immediately engaging, vivid, sometimes amusing, ultimately melancholy.

Ali and Mamed grow up together in Tangier, inseparable because they appear to complement each other. Their story is told first by Ali, then by Mamed. A short memoir from a third friend, Ramon, is followed by a final letter from Mamed to Ali, delivered posthumously.

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In their schooldays and then as students they do everything together, setting the world to rights; they chase girls and compare notes. They drink and smoke; neither is a "good" Muslim. Through films they learn about life beyond Morocco; Ali, indeed, goes on to film school in Canada. Mamed becomes a doctor, later emigrating to Sweden. They marry, and both wives are jealous of their friendship.

Before then, in the summer of 1966, their "youthful illusions are shattered". Both are arrested, Mamed because he is a communist, though the party is legal and he has done nothing wrong. As for Ali, "'the grey men', as my mother called them, came to our house at six in the morning to arrest me. They offered no explanations. They simply carried out their orders." They are held for a year and a half. "After we got out of prison," Ali reflects, "neither of us was ever the same again." Mamed's time in prison leaves him with a lifelong suspicion of authority. Even his friendship is in its way disturbing. "Over time," Mamed writes, "Ali's intuitiveness bothered me. We were two open books. We could see right through each other, and deep down I didn't want that." When he falls ill, he decides to break their friendship, does so brutally and dishonestly.

They have been as open to each other as is possible between men, certainly in a Morocco then living under a sort of martial law, one in which opponents of the government simply disappeared. "Faced with their families, the police would pretend to look for them, knowing, of course, that another branch of the police had taken care of them for good. We were haunted by this idea of disappearing for ever, vanishing into thin air, reduced to a mound of earth without being officially declared dead." Both strive to lead normal and useful lives amid the fear and uncertainty.

Mamed gets a job with the World Health Organisation in Sweden. Life there is good, but he "misses Morocco, the smells, the morning scents, the sounds, the nameless faces we see every day, the warmth of the sky and the people". Nostalgia permeates the novel, for it is not only the story of a friendship that is brought to breaking-point but a melancholy meditation on loss, on the bitter taste of experience, on the closing of the avenues of possibility that seemed to exist - did perhaps exist - in youth.

Tahar Ben Jelloun is a remarkable novelist, and this novel which is at the same time fresh as a spring morning, and sad as an autumn twilight, offers us a wonderful evocation of daily life, of the conflicting claims of friendship and marriage, of the deadening weight of experience that presses on Ali and Mamed in maturity. The writing is simple and direct. Every sentence is telling. It makes you think and feel at the same time. Read it. There is nothing tricksy about it, nothing pretentious. It is that most satisfying of things: a true fiction.