A Palace in the Old Village is the story of Mohammed, a Moroccan immigrant working in a French car factory for forty years. He loses sleep over the idea of retiring; he fears he’ll feel useless and won’t know how to fill his time. So when the day comes, he decides to have a large house built in his hometown in Morocco, dreaming that he would spend his old age there with his children and grandchildren.
What struck me immediately with the book was the effortlessness of the writing: it feels as if the author is chatting to you, the narration and the point of view change seamlessly between the protagonist and the other characters. The translator has used colloquial and slang liberally; both the vocabulary and the syntax are very fluent – I bet she read the whole book out loud before sending it to the copy-editor.
The plot was a bit disproportionate for my conservative taste for symmetry. The first half of the novel is descriptive: we learn about Mohammed’s life and character through stream of consciousness and flashbacks. In chapter 12 (there are 18) we suddenly plunge into action, and that marks the beginning of the short build-up. I also found the end a bit rushed, and I don’t like it when supernatural elements fix plots in otherwise realist novels.
I found that the protagonist’s character was very well developed. He’s a well-meaning, naïve person but with certain weaknesses. Among the flashbacks is his outrage when he saw his daughter wipe her knife clean with a piece of bread, whereas he’d been taught to kiss the loaf of bread before putting it on the table. He also finds unfathomable how his daughter insisted that she’d get married to her Italian fiancé, saying that she loved him. This left him angry and confused, because in his generation when the young wanted to get married, they didn’t go shout at their parents that they were “in love.”
One moving passage just before the end:
Mohammed was crushed. Why should he be the only Muslim denied the visit of the angels? Unless it was a sign that all this meant nothing, that he’d been tricked, made a fool of. His rigid arms would no longer move. His head, same thing. Again he felt the hot flow of urine along his legs. He could no longer stop peeing; it was like a fountain of lukewarm water, and he wasn’t even ashamed anymore. What point was there in rising to clean himself up, shave, dab on some scent, and clothe himself in white? No one would come. No one would ever remember him (147).
I’m in the middle of moving, so half of my books are in lockers, the other half posted to Turkey by Royal Mail. I don’t know what I’m reading next, but I’m really looking forward to doing my reading on the beach.