Archipelago Books is a small not-for-profit publisher of world literature. The books they have published can be found at archipelagobooks.org. To some Brooklyn, NY, USA has become the world again and by coincidence they are a Brooklyn publisher looking outwards.
If “The Bottom of the Jar” by Abdellatif Laabi is representative of what they published, then their other publications are a must read. This is an absolutely lovely book. I could not help but think of Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize Egyptian author that chronicled traditional life in Cairo with an undercurrent of political commentary. Like Mahfouz’s famed Cairo Trilogy here the city is Fez, Morocco on the verge of independence from the French. It is told through the eyes of Namouss, a young boy from a merchant familiy, who is coming of age. It is a child’s travelogue, told by age in concentric circles. At the earliest confined to where he lives and his immediate family and geographically expanding as he ages, in exploration of other sectors of the city, its culture, characters, religion, music, food, and biases. The characters are well drawn in all their idiosyncronies. They are not Daumier-like caricatures, but personalities viewed from a child’s perspective. The ambiguous interplay between Islamic and French colonial culture on an aspiring middle class family who is tenuously trying to just live their lives is reflective of most people during politically transitional periods.
The novel was originally written in French and the translation, at times suffers from dated colloquialisms. To me words such as “shebang” do not fit with the time and place of the book. These distractions are however limited and do not detract from an otherwise very enjoyable novel.