Have you ever considered what makes a story that is told different from a story that is written down? The most obvious one is your relationship to the person who is recounting the tale. In the case of a story that's been put down on paper, there is a sense of distance between the author and what they are recounting, while the story teller is more directly involved with his narration. Whether or not what they are telling you actually happened is irrelevant, their physical presence and the sound of their voice connects them to their story in a way that creates an intimacy that is hard to recreate with the written word.
It's been my experience that when a story that was originally told is converted into a written work it loses that sense of intimacy. However, that was before I read A Life Full Of Holes, published by Harper Collins Canada, a story told by Moroccan author Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (the pen name of Larbi Layachi) that was recorded and translated by the great American writer Paul Bowles. Somehow or other, even though you are reading this story, it manages to capture the experience of having it told to you.
According to the introduction, this story was told to Bowles by Charhadi over the course of a couple of months. Charhadi would simply plunk himself down in front of the tape recorder and tell a section of the story without stopping or even pausing to think about what he was going to say next. Instead of adapting the story into something polished, Bowles elected to simply translate it from Charhadi's dialect as literally as possible without any editing.
A Life Full Of Holes is the of the story of Ahmed ben Said Haddari in Morocco. Told in the first person, the story follows him from early childhood through adolescence until adulthood. The picture that is painted is one of abject poverty and misery as he tells us of the various ways in which he tries to make a living, and the misadventures that befall him. From his step-father who refuses to feed him unless he goes to work when he's a child, the beatings he experiences at the hands of bullies, the racism he faces from the Europeans (referred to as Nazarenes in reference to the fact that their prophet Jesus was originally from Nazareth) who occupy and rule Morocco, to the times he spends in jail, his life is one long struggle to survive. Every time it looks like he might finally be getting his head above water something happens to pull him back under again.
What makes this story so powerful is the straightforward manner that Ahmed reports on what happens to him. Whether it's the prison guards stealing the food and cigarettes his mother has brought him in jail or him being arrested for being in possession of kif and his sentence being decided by a representative of the tobacco industry (they want people to smoke tobacco instead of kif and pressure judges into passing stiff sentences against kif users in order to discourage its use and force people to switch to their product), his various misfortunes are presented in a matter of fact manner that makes them seem like everyday occurrences that could and do befall everybody.
There is something about reading about injustices presented without emotion that makes them even more disturbing. It makes them seem like just another part of life that people have to deal with, and that nothing anybody does is going to make it any better. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the Europeans or fellow Arabs in charge, as anybody whom Ahmed comes across who has some sort of power is corrupt in one way or another.
There is a pervasive element of fatalism that flows throughout A Life Full Of Holes that is personified by the way Ahmed and other characters accept their lot in life. "Allah wills it" – God wills it – eventually becomes his one solace against misfortune as it allows him to take whatever comes his way with a certain level of equanimity. There's no point in getting upset about being sentenced to jail for three years for something you didn't do, because there's nothing you can do about it anyway. If its God's will that you're going to spend that time in jail, you might as well just try to make the best of a bad situation instead of giving yourself aggravation by fighting the inevitable.
What really gives this book its power though is the fact that in spite of it being written out, you still have the sense that the story is being told to you. While Charhadi electing to tell it from the point of view of his lead character in the first person helps create that impression, the fact that it is told completely in the present tense gives it an immediacy that's normally lacking in a written narrative. Each stage of Ahmed's life is recounted while he is living it, so we are experiencing it at the same time he does with none of the usual division between characters and readers.
A Life Full Of Holes is not only a powerful and slightly horrifying portrayal of life for the poorest of the poor in colonial Morocco in the 1960s, it's also a brilliant example of how it's possible to recreate the magic and immediacy of oral story-telling in writing. Most times when people write out a story that's been told to them they tend to adapt it to meet the needs of the novel form. That's not been the case here, and the result is something truly unique and special.