“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers. And how one remembers it in order to recount it."
Those words, by late author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, are an apt description of French-Moroccan writer Rachid Benzine’s new novel Silence of the Fathers.
On a broad level, the book delves into the suffering of thousands of Moroccan workers who contributed to the construction of Europe and its liberation from the ravages of the Second World War. It focuses particularly on France, which enlisted the help of its colonial subjects even after decolonisation, exploiting immigrants and their needs and dreams for a better and more humane life.
But on a more intimate level, it deals with broken family dynamics – and perception-altering discoveries.
Protagonist Amin, at the start of the novel, receives the news of his father’s death via a call from his sister. He hasn’t seen his father in over two decades – ever since he left his hometown to pursue a successful career as a pianist. Leaving home had granted Amin independence, but it also severed his already weak bond with his father.
After that, they only shared silence, where endless unresolved arguments lived.
At first, Amin seems indifferent to news of his father's death, as though he is a stranger. And perhaps he was. To him, his father was simply the man responsible for his existence. He could not mourn him like his brothers and sisters did: "Their grief is not my grief... For someone, there must be more feelings than pain and crying... Death cannot erase everything."
At the same time, he acknowledges that, over time, he stopped being able to parse his true feelings for the man who birthed him.
"We cannot go back. We can't. My relationship with my father, real or imagined, now exists only in my imagination. Soon, I will no longer be able to tell whether what I feel, and what I retain of it, is real or imagined,” he narrates.
Absence of colour
Benzine's first chapter is void of colour; it highlights a relationship that is vague, cold, and superficial, but nevertheless exists. It’s different from the portrait immortalised by philosopher Albert Camus in his novel The Stranger, regarding the relationship between a son and his mother.
However, Benzine is unable to break free from the prevailing narrative traditions established by the French-Moroccan, or even French, writers before him. There’s a stereotypical image of second and third-generation immigrants in France – and their complicated relationship with the first generation – that is hard to escape.