Review of 'For Bread Alone', Mohamed Choukri, Telegram £9.99
Mohamed Choukri's autobiographical novel, For Bread Alone, is a richly descriptive and engaging portrayal of Moroccan society on the eve of independence. He offers an honest and vivid account of ordinary people striving to find food, work, sex and love against a backdrop of famine and colonial subjugation.
Choukri's skill lies in the way that he combines personal narratives with references to the wider struggle for national liberation without turning his characters into mere representatives of a political ideal.
His frank depiction of sex, homosexuality and drug-taking has caused controversy - with the novel being intermittently banned in Morocco. The Arabic version of For Bread Alone was not published until 1982, almost a decade after the 1973 English translation by Paul Bowles.
Choukri's early years are marked by poverty and violence. His family leave their home in the mountainous Rif region of the country and walk to Tangiers in search of a better life. Several of his siblings die from malnutrition and a younger brother is killed by his father in a fit of rage.
These experiences inspire a lifelong hatred of injustice in the author and a determination to resist oppression. While he rages against the beatings meted out by his father, Choukri clearly identifies the underlying cause of oppression as the everyday brutality and humiliation of colonial rule in North Africa.
We gain a flavour of this from his eyewitness account of the indiscriminate shooting of unarmed civilians by Spanish soldiers during the independence riots of 1952 and subsequent dumping of bodies into the sea. Choukri sells cheap merchandise to the passing ships full of French soldiers on their way to fight anti-colonialists in neighbouring Algeria.
The expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the appeal of Arab nationalist ideas in Nasser's Egypt are discussed by men socialising in the cafes of Tangiers.
Central to Choukri's work are the themes of sexuality and literacy. Sex is viewed as a means of escape from the deprivation and frustrations of everyday life, and literacy represents a means of political articulation.
Mohamed leaves home at a young age and the harsh reality of his life on the streets as a petty thief, small-time smuggler and prostitute is honestly depicted. He eagerly embraces the joys of alcohol and sex, yet is all too aware that there is no romance to be found in performing sexual acts for money to satisfy wealthy colonial settlers.
Mohamed is introduced to classical Arabic literature by a fellow inmate during a short spell in jail at the age of 20. Following his release he obtained a place in a desert school where he learnt to read and write, later becoming a school teacher himself.
Unfortunately this phase of his life is glossed over in the English translation in favour of further sexual adventures. This means that Choukri's transition from small-time crook to a literate and politically conscious individual seems somewhat disjointed. Bowles states in the introduction to the novel that he admires the total recall of oral storytellers yet Choukri had been literate for 13 years by the time For Bread Alone appeared in 1973. He included Tennessee Williams and Jean Genet among his circle of literary friends.
Despite this criticism of the translation, For Bread Alone is definitely an enjoyable and worthwhile read.