The Death of Murat Idrissi is a slight novel, it barely makes 100 pages, and it impressed me from its opening pages. Such is the skill of Tommy Wieringa, in a few short paragraphs he describes the evolutionary development of the Mediterranean region, particularly the straits of Gibralter, from the beginning of time until the present.
I studied this part of the world at school, in my geography classes and in my Latin classes (yes, I took Latin, I was abysmal, it’s a miracle I passed at all, just so you know). Then, from here, these places seemed fanciful and far away. They may as well have been Middle Earth. Until one day, many years later, I did stand on Gibraltor, the European Pillar of Hercules, and gaze across that narrow stretch of water to Africa and Jebel Musa, astounded at the physical proximity of the two continents. They’re much closer, in fact, than the North and South Islands here in New Zealand.
The first few pages of the novella set the scene, evoking a powerful sense of place, of history, of conflict. As Weiringa says:
The crack between the Eurasian and African plates is but a scratch in the earth’s crust; still it divides the continents resolutely. Here is here and there is there. (P2).
On a clear day from Tarifa and Gibralter it’s possible to see the houses on the other side of the straits, dotting the coastline. Over millennia people have gazed at one another across that divide and wondered. And conquered. Back and forth, forth and back they have advanced and retreated, according to where the balance of power was at any given point in time.
Now ferries ply their path between Algerciras and Tangier, or Tarifa and Tangier, several times a day, transporting tourists, business people, locals, and all manner of merchandise. All that commerce, all that activity to and fro make the treacherous stretch of water appear almost mundane. Except it isn’t.
Now, for those from Morrocco and sub-Saharan Africa who make their way to the African coastline, that age-old wondering is potent with longing. Now, getting across looks readily achievable.
So close, just one little leap …
They come in clapped out fishing boats and even in truck tyre inner tubes; since the turn of the century, a few thousand of them have drowned in the strait. In Ksar es-Seghir, a fisherman looks out over the high waves and sighs: ‘Around here, you’re more likely to find a corpse in your net than a fish.’
On the far shore, in the cemetery of Santo Cristo de las Animas in Tarifa, a corner behind white pickets has been reserved for the nameless dead who wash ashore. Tufts of hardy grass bend beneath the wind. A column of vultures and storks ride the thermal, round and round, in endless orbit. Far below, the flash of a ship—the ferry from Tangier to Algeciras. pp6-7.
The Death of Murat Idrissi is a story about the consequences of that longing, about risking everything for a chance at the hoped for, and dreamed of, better life. It’s a story about how dreams over-ride reality, how they preclude logic. How something as simple as crossing that strait on the ferry can turn tragic if you are not amongst the privileged who carry the correct papers.
And it’s a story about loyalty, and friendship. About the nightmare that can and does so readily overwhelm everything when “No” is the right response, but is simultaneoulsy impossible.
The Death of Murat Idrissi is a tragedy. Sometimes its almost farcical, or would be if it weren’t so close to the awfulness of the truth. And its a story of desperation as the two friends, Thouraya and Ilham, both of whom have European and Moroccan passports, set out on a great adventure together to explore the homeland of their parents. Only, they discover they don’t belong there either. They feel vulnerable, frightened at the difference between themselves and the people of Morocco. They lack any real political analysis of poverty, or of international relations, and so they end up blaming the poor they encounter, as if being poor is the result of some sort of personal failing. All this leads to them relying on the wrong person, Saleh, a people smuggler.
When it all goes bad he deserts them and they must find a way out of the nightmare for themselves. All the while the stench of their passenger’s decaying body grows ever stronger. Murat Idrissi has shifted from someone they might have helped, to an imposition, to something they must rid themselves of. If they can.
This is the first novel I’ve read by Tommy Wieringa, a well-known Dutch writer who has won many awards for his work. When I realised he was Dutch I did wonder whether this novel would acheive the verisimilitude so essential for the successful realisation of a challenging story. For me, it did.
Eileen Battersby, in one of her last reviews prior to her accidental death in December of 2018 says of this novel:
The full mercilessness of the migrant dilemma is confronted here to devastating effect
For myself, I couldn’t put this book down. It is a slim volume that takes no prisoners and I loved it. I thought the translation, by Sam Garrett, from the original Dutch superb. The language is free flowing, smooth; there seemed no barrier between me and the writer. It’s a little book jam packed with the awfulness of truth. And somehow, I don’t know how, this author together with this translator made me believe that could be me driving across Spain with the body of a dead man in the boot of the car.
The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa, translated by Sam Garrett (2019) Scribe
Opening Sentence: In the deepness of time.
Longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize for Fiction
Categories: On Books
“The awfulness of truth” – a superb phrase. I’ve just seen an exhibition of art by refugees in detention in Indonesia and was looking for a phrase to encapsulate it. You’ve found it. Your reviews are always magnificent, and this book goes on my list – far too long for my remaining lifespan – of must-reads. Thank you
Wonderful review and reflections Jill, I’ve been intrigued by this novel since I read that Eileen Battersby review, sadly one of her last.
I found it utterly compelling, Claire. And I think Eileen Battersby’s review was spot on. It’s so sad that’s she’s lost to us, now.
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It was such a shock Jill, I was looking for her annual reflection on reading when I learned what had happened, she was my favourite literary reviewer, such a great loss.
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Unfortunately, she has only just come on to my radar, from reading the post you wrote after she died, I think. And then I recognised her name on the Guardian review I’ve linked to here. I feel as if I’ve missed out on someone whose contribution to the world of books would have been very enriching.
Hi Jill, I just looked for this at our library, but we don’t have it – I bet I can request to add it to our collection. I’m always amazed how powerful translations can be – readers don’t think much about translators, but they are very skilled.
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Translation is a whole different field of expertise, isn’t it. Sam Garrett did a fantastic job on this novel. I think he’s worked with Tommy Wieringa before. I hope you do manage to get hold of a copy of the novella. I think Eileen Battersby’s review was so very right when she said it confronts “the migrant dilemma to devastating effect”.
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