Book Review: The Happy Marriage
by Tahar Ben Jelloun
translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely
Melville House, 2016
Much-lauded Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 2012 novel Le Bonheur Conjugal now has a pleasingly transparent English-language translation by Andre Naffis-Sahely as The Happy Marriage from Melville House, giving a new audience some exposure to this author who’s won many awards and garnered a wide international readership.
In some ways, it’s the perfect choice of his novels to put forward. Certainly it’s showcase for his strengths – a snarky wit, a fine flowing descriptive line, and an eagerness to rattle the fundamental conventions of the novel. The first long chunk of The Happy Marriage centers on a famous painter in Casablanca who intensely hates his wife and has recently been totally incapacitated by a stroke and thus put entirely in her power. His immobility gives him plenty of opportunity to think about the rot of his marriage and its causes:
So it was that one day he thought he’d stumbled onto the reason why their marriage had fallen apart so strangely. His wife had become two different people. Two people, two characters, two moods, two faces coexisted inside a single body. Even her voice had changed. He knew that every person on Earth seemed to suffer from a split personality, but the extent to which his wife did so was quite troubling. Sometimes he didn’t seem to recognize her.
This motif of duality is by no means restricted to the painter’s wife; it runs through this richly claustrophobic narrative, cropping up in a pair of twins, a deeply conflicted young woman, the painter himself, who’s afflicted not only with warning signs of his oncoming stroke but also with periodic deep depression that might, we retroactively imagine, warp his reliability as a narrator (he’s warned by his doctor: “Depression is a real illness, it’s not a mere question of gloominess or melancholy or a passing cloud. It’s a serious condition and one must be cautious”). This duality even extends to the physical environment of Tangiers:
Whenever it rained in Tangiers, the Chergui winds would join the fray, they would blow and make the hills of the Old Mountain tremble. The winds would continue blowing even after the rains had stopped, shaking even the tallest and sturdiest trees. It was said the winds helped sweep the city clean of diseases and its mosquitoes. Others insisted that it made people crazy, and that madmen needed those winds to get excited, sing, dance, and laugh.
And the book concluldes with the ultimate duality: the final section of the narrative is commandeered by none other than the painter’s wife, the villain of the first 220 pages. She’s discovered the secret manuscript her husband was writing about their marriage, and she’s determined to correct the record. “Before giving you my version of events,” she begins. “I must warn you that I’m nasty.” And she’s right about that; Jelloun makes her, by her own account, a stomping, bullying, entirely unsympathetic character, a wounded, griping woman who eagerly seeks to overturn everything her husband has told the reader and who goes straight for the old painter’s sly equivocations, including about his career, their sex life, and even their names:
I hope you noticed that he never referred to me by my name throughout the entirety of his manuscript. I was nothing to him, a gust of wind, a smudge of dew on the window, not even a ghost … Very well, I’ll do the same. From now on, I’ll refer to my husband as Foulane, an Arabic word used to refer to “any old guy.”
The result of this one-two punch is vigorously, quietly satisfying, and Andre Naffis-Sahely does a skillful job of bringing Jelloun’s deceptive linguistic playfulness across in English, although “The Happy Marriage” misses out on a sliver of the ironic duality of the original (“Married Happiness,” “The Happiness of Marriage,” or even the idiomatic “Conjugal Bliss” might have worked better). But Naffis-Sahely otherwise captures the worldly, sardonic tone of a novelist readers will want to know better.