Am I going to go on dreaming about bread for ever?

For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri and translated by Paul Bowles

Mohamed Choukri is an interesting figure. He came from a desperately poor background and didn’t learn to read until his early 20s. He wrote a famous autobiographical trilogy of which For Bread Alone is the first. It covers those early years up until he decided to become literate and is utterly unflinching in its depiction of the experience of abject poverty.

Normally that’s not the sort of thing I’d read. I detest misery memoirs and bildungsroman is one of my least favourite genres.  I made an exception here partly as I’ve heard this is an influence on Mathias Enard’s Street of Thieves, partly as Stu gave it a good review on his Winston’s Dad blog and partly as I was intrigued to see what had caught Paul Bowles’ attention so strongly that he chose to translate it.

In this piece I’m going to refer to Mohamed when I’m referring to Choukri as character within the book and to Choukri when I’m referring to him as author.

For Bread Alone opens with Mohamed and his family moving from their native Rif region of Morocco to Tangier. Rif has its own language and ethnic identity and Mohamed’s accent will immediately mark him out in Tangier as an outsider. They’re making the journey from desperation – the Rif has had no rain and that means no food:

We were making our way towards Tangier on foot. All along the road there were dead donkeys and cows and horses. The dogs and crows were pulling them apart. The entrails were soaked in blood and pus, and worms crawled out of them. At night when we were tired we set up our tent. Then we listened to the jackals baying.

When someone died along the road, his family buried the body there in the place where he had died.

Mohamed’s uncle has just died so the family is reduced to him, his younger brother Abdelqader who is too sick during the journey even to cry, his mother and his violent father. When they reach Tangier it’s no promised land: food remains so scarce that Mohamed even tries to scavenge a dead chicken from the street despite its being evidently carrion.

Mohamed’s father struggles to find work. Each day he comes home disappointed and savagely beats anyone within reach in revenge for his frustrations. Within the first few pages of the book he grows angry at Abdelqader’s constant crying from illness and hunger and in a fit of rage kills him. It’s a crime for which he will never be punished. It’s little surprise that Mohamed grows up wild.

For Bread Alone is utterly unsparing not just of those around Mohamed but of his failings also. For a while he’s sent to stay with relatives in the country and things seem to be looking up for him, until he sexually assaults a younger boy (he’s not gay in any contemporary sense of that word, there just aren’t any women to hand). The pointless ugliness of this next incident for me shows his father’s influence:

One day I tried in vain to climb a high tree. That leg was tall and smooth. I grew very angry at being repulsed, and so I went to the shed and filled a can with gasoline. I doused the tree trunk and lit a match. The flames were beautiful. I said to the charred tree: Now you’re not so smooth. I can climb you, as high as I want.

As he grows older his acts of pointless aggression tail off somewhat, but he remains a hustler. He sells himself, steals, becomes a vicious brawler and spends the little money he gets on drugs and prostitutes. He’s obsessed with sex, in one dry period carving a tree to look vaguely like a woman and then having sex with that. (He uses lubricant you’ll, perhaps, be glad to know).

So why read this? With this much ugliness, violence and squalor why read any of it? Well, for the absolute honesty but also for the empathy. Choukri doesn’t pretend he had some special claim on suffering or that others weren’t doing equally badly. He doesn’t pretend to have been a victim. He takes the reader into the lives of people lost in drugs, hustling and violence as did say Burroughs and Bukowski but where they just show what is Choukri also explores the why. He shows the lack of better opportunities and why living as these people do may very well be a rational decision given their circumstances.

At times this is reminiscent of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, particularly earlier on in the book before Mohamed becomes an established hustler.

Now I chew on the emptiness in my mouth. I chew and chew. My insides are growling and bubbling. Growling and bubbling. I feel dizzy. Yellow water came up and filled my mouth and nostrils. I breathed deeply, deeply, and my head felt a little clearer. Sweat ran down my face.

At other times it becomes existential. What sets Mohamed apart from those around him is his intelligence and the potential it brings, but for most of this book he’s yet to realise either. Even so, as he reaches his twenties he becomes more than merely reactive and starts to think about who he is and how he fits into the world.

I thought the meaning of life was in living it. I know the flavour of this cigarette because I’m smoking it, and it is the same with everything.

The test for any book which is part of a trilogy is whether or not you’d read the others. On balance, I would read more by Choukri. It’s admittedly a fairly fine balance as while this is well written I’m not generally interested in memoirs nor in exploring others’ poverty, but Choukri’s empathy and intelligence make this worthwhile. Unfortunately, while a Bowles translation is available for this volume there don’t seem to be equivalent translations for the others and I’ve seen what is available criticised for omissions and unnecessary changes. That means that sadly this is probably where my exploration of Choukri stops.

One last word: For Bread Alone comes at the beginning with a handy glossary of words that Bowles chose not to translate, presumably either for lack of a direct equivalent or for the colour they gave the text. One of these read as follows:

zigdoun: a woman’s garment, akin to a Mother Hubbard

Thanks Paul. Unfortunately I then had to google a Mother Hubbard. Funny how references can age.

Other reviews

The only one I know of among the usual suspects is the one that helped spark my interest in this, which is Stu’s here from his Winston’s Dad’s blog.

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11 Comments

Filed under Arabic, Choukri, Mohamed, Memoirs

11 responses to “Am I going to go on dreaming about bread for ever?

  1. Interesting that he went on to write a book after learning to read in his 20s. That early deficit is usually impossible to overcome.

  2. I think he was a very smart guy, and very determined too. He’d have needed both certainly.

  3. Jonathan

    I’m pretty sure I read this when I was reading a lot of Bowles’s work. I read a couple by Mohhamed Mrabet as well, which were good. I recently picked up a second-hand copy with the intention of re-reading it somewhen.

    I wasn’t aware there were subsequent books. It’s a shame they haven’t been translated.

  4. There’s a translation of the second one at least, but by a different translator and an (apparently well informed) Amazon review indicates it’s pretty inaccurate with huge omissions and changes. It is a shame I agree.

    I’ll check out Mrabet, I don’t know him.

  5. Memoirs can be tricky things. It must be difficult to get the tone right, especially when the ‘story’ touches on some of the more difficult experiences in life.

    I wouldn’t normally go for something like this either, but there are always exceptions to the general rule. The last memoir I read was Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I found pretty remarkable. She has a wonderful gift for analysing her own situation without it ever coming across as insular or self-indulgent.

  6. As Jacqui says, getting the tone right in a a memoir is tricky. This sounds like it benefits from a relentless honesty which is not in any way simply to shock or titillate.Have you read Street of Thieves yet, or were you reading this first?

  7. This avoids self-indulgence Jacqui, which is largely why I’d have considered reading the next two volumes were they available in a Bowles’ translation. I agree it’s tricky territory; to an extent I prefer authors just to fictionalise since as Winterson once said (roughly) all autobiography is fiction anyway.

    Grant, relentless honesty is right and does benefit it. I haven’t read Street yet (and I could be wrong on the link). I wanted to give this a go first.

  8. Sendra

    I’m with you about an unease with misery memoirs. My background wasn’t great and I can detect maudlin fakery or reverse bragging within my own narrow spectrum of being brought up with less. If it’s reasonably genuine (or just convinces), there may be an element of poverty tourism from the reader (especially if they’ve always been well-off) and that’s grim. The tougher contours of a deprived life can seem ‘exotic’ and it really shouldn’t.
    Never really thought about it, but the author has to get his telling of such a life just right. Otherwise there’s a risk of a faintly despicable taint from one end or another. Looks like your man pulled it off. That level of poverty can be a story that is worth telling in its own right but you’ve nailed down that it often needs an approach other than showing ‘what is’. I strongly agree.
    I used to travel a bit and I would see tones that could shock me in an instant. Concrete shacks in Bangkok where the one luxury was always a huge flat-screen that invariably showed glossy local soaps bright with luxury. Usually an elderly inhabitant would be silhouetted against the screen, immobile, staring. The TV was a window or a deaf genie. No need to wax poetically about it. It was just a fact. Strange and cold.
    Despite the inferior translation of the rest of the trilogy, I’m curious why you don’t think Choukri’s escape worth investigating. It must be interesting, regardless. Perhaps your dislike of memoirs is just too strong. Though you should check out Errol Flynn’s for a laugh. Manages to be both glamourous and absolutely horrid. Like the man.
    Reading James’ The Golden Bowl. A very different world. He’s a funny old chap. Immense care always taken. Impressive but sometimes almost too much. A long one. Apologies and regards.

  9. I grew up on the Latimer West estate, now sadly famous due to the Grenfell Tower fire (it’s part of my childhood estate). My immediate family were at the time long-term unemployed and there were other issues, so I’m pretty familiar with childhood poverty (which is hardly a unique thing to be able to say). I think that does give me part of my distaste – there is nothing special in having a shitty time as a kid and even if one’s own experience was particularly bad that doesn’t make it suitable to turn into vicarious entertainment for others. Poverty tourism as you say, like a literary equivalent to those guided tours some people do of the Brazilian favelas.

    Also, it can become a lie merely by virtue of framing. If I wrote of my own experiences and ended at say age 18 that would present one picture. If I extended it say to thirty then it would be very different as things got vastly better after I left home and relationships were transformed in ways I’d never have dreamed possible as a kid. Framing can be a form of dishonesty. Autobiography is inevitably fiction because it involves editing.

    The difference here to the general misery memoir genre is perhaps the same as in the St. Aubyn’s novel I reviewed a while back which also comes dangerously close to misery memoir territory but pulls it off – that relentless honesty and a sense of truth which is more than merely mawkish.

    The Bangkok example is perfect in some ways. It’s just a fact.

    I think the issue with the remainder is the sense that I wouldn’t really be reading Choukri but rather a bastardised version of him due to the subsequent translation issues. It’s that which puts me off interesting as the story sounds.

    Thanks for the comment. It’s tricky to talk of this stuff without being personal in a way that can be uncomfortable or as you say reverse bragging, which is just awful.

  10. Sendra

    Sorry for the brief reply but, yeah, snap. And I guessed it long before the latest post. Certain ways of looking at things chimed.
    My parents were employed in unemployment and relentlessly counterculture. Gilbert Sheldon with strong consequences. 19th floor. Another cold fact. Like you, I was fortunate enough to eventually feel affection and understanding. They did what they could, more or less, and they were in trouble, too. We could compare experiences and make connections and parses but we kind of know it. I’m glad we made a nod in each other’s direction. A nod serves. Though Grenfell can make me look back with that old unease. Deeper understanding and greater emotional distance. And I don’t like either aspects. They could have been neighbours.
    Good thing we escaped the estates and what can reside within them. Reading a lot helped, didn’t it? The trash just as much as the more respectable stuff. Spaceships and more realisable ambitions.
    I’m signing off before Oprah offers me a car or something.
    Well done. On both counts.

  11. Pingback: Men are dogs, they rub against each other in misery, | Pechorin's Journal

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