We found Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s short novel The African Shore, masterfully translated by Jeffrey Gray, to be almost the perfect counterpoint to Seiobo There Below. In its sonnet-like perfection, even a single out-of-place word would have marred this novel’s hypnotizing effect, so due praise must be given to Rey Rosa and Gray for presenting us with this seamless, engrossing story. We also admired the strange logic by which Rey Rosa’s book functions, telling two parallel narratives that are connected by that strange symbolic creature, the owl. The African Shore felt very much to us like a story that only Rey Rosa could have told, a small, perfectly cut jewel that we can stare into endlessly. It is emblematic of the very rich exchange between Rey Rosa’s native Guatemala and the Morocco in which he lived for a decade, and its minimalist aesthetic points us toward an interesting new direction for Latin American literature to follow in the new century.
American composer, translator and writer Paul Bowles translated a number of Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s works into English as well as having his works translated by Rey Rosa. As a resident of Tangier for over fifty years, the setting of this novel in Morocco is a significant homage to his mentor. Paul Bowles himself recalled his first meeting of Rey Rosa in 1980 at a “creative writing” workshop at the American School of Tangier.
The youngest of the class was a Guatemalan, who wrote in Spanish. He had a fertile imagination, and used it to invent situations which were generally sinister. His texts were very short, often mere scenes or prose-poems of atmosphere, rather than tales, but all of them showed a power of invention capable of creating truly original situations.
“The African Shore” is one of those “truly original situations”, with short, sharp sections (“prose-poems”), we have a tale of a shepherd and an unnamed Columbian tourist, linked together through the fate of an owl. A great example of the short scene in use is where the shepherd invites a small boy into his tent:
When the boy stepped within reach, Hamsa grabbed one of his arms and pulled him toward him. With his free hand he lifted up his gandura.
A very similar scene takes place in the other novel on the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, set in Morocco, “Horses of God”, however that description is more detailed, and explicit. Both have the same outcome, Rodrigo Rey Rosa actually saying more by saying less. Here is a small snippet of Mahi Binebine's description:
Then it was Fuad's turn to straddle the sleeping boy. He did so delicately, nuzzling and stroking his mount as if they were setting off on a long journey. Nabil was unconscious, laid out in the middle of the room like a corpse. Fuad sat astride him, whispering unintelligible words in his ear. A squawk like a bird’s, then a yelp, like someone being stabbed. And on to the next..
Our shepherd looks after his flock perilously close to the cliffs, so close in fact that our opening has him rescuing one of the flock from the cliff face. His closeness to the shore, leads him to dream of the riches he could make (from his uncle) by assisting with people smuggling from Africa to Europe.
Our unnamed Columbian (he is named once very late in the story) has lost his passport, moves from his hotel, meets a French archaeologist (who becomes a minor character) and isn’t quite as clean as what the surface may show...or is he???
He didn’t like to lie but sometimes the truth about himself seemed so unacceptable that he let himself, always thinking he’d change things later so the fiction would match the reality. He could have been single, though in the eyes of the law he was married – since he had lived several years with his girlfriend – just as he could have been something other than an ordinary tourist with a mislaid passport. He looked in the mirror. As women were always saying, men were dogs. Smiling uncomfortably, he turned and shut the light off.
Our two protagonists here have the standard human frailties, the concerns with existence, the continual journey to somewhere better...The young shepherd thinking about the powers of being able to see at night, wants to use the creature’s eyes as an amulet or as a spell, our Columbian simply admires its beauty. The owl’s journey becomes metaphor for the journey of our two characters. It is trapped, it is “broken” (injured), it is mended, it escapes. Just like our misplaced Columbian and French characters living temporarily at the gateway to Europe.
We have faxes from our Columbian character’s girlfriend, slowly becoming more frantic given the lack of response, the range of minor characters become shadier as the work progresses (or do they? Is it just our imagination as to what they are up to?), the romance between the Columbian and the archaeologist is lightly sketched, actually giving it more substance and the life of the shepherd is simple, just as the words used to describe it.
This is a quick but deeply thoughtful read, weighing in at only 136 pages, however the content reads as a much longer work. The antithesis of another Spanish work on the Best Translated Book Award list, Antonio Munoz Molina’s “In The Night Of Time”. This is one of my favourites of the list to date, a melancholy muse that says a lot through not saying a lot at all.