The Last Patriarch by Najat El-Hachmi

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The Last Patriarch by Najat El-Hachmi

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: A story of physical and sexual abuse, immigration, culture clashes and one brave girl's attempt to escape the cycle of abuse. Prize-winning Catalan literature.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: April 2010
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846687174

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Najat El-Hachmi's debut novel, The Last Patriarch is a difficult book - both in terms of content and style. It's a story of physical and sexual abuse in a patriarchal Moroccan family, an immigrant story, when first the father and then the family move to Catalonia, and ultimately a story of the narrator, the patriarch's daughter, breaking free of her past as she takes on different cultural values. Narrated entirely from the perspective of the patriarch, Mimoun Driouch's unnamed daughter, the story is also concerned with cultural and imagined histories, and the importance of origin stories.

El-Hachmi, who was born in Morocco and whose own family moved to Catalonia, tells the story in two parts. The first part concerns Mimoun's birth and childhood up to his marriage and emigration to Catalonia. It's a catalogue of violence, sexual abuse and rape, although El-Hachmi makes clear that her narrator may be unreliable and the stories are told with plenty of phrases such as 'we expect' or 'it isn't beyond the realm of probability that'. Equally this may be the only way that both the family in general and the daughter in particular can think of these episodes. Nevertheless, they make uncomfortable reading although perhaps they are too over-played? I began to see Mimoun as too much of a caricature rather than a rounded character.

The second half of the book concerns more the clash of cultures, the experience of immigrants and ultimately the fall of the patriarchal system that we are promised in the title when Mimoun's daughter starts to learn Catalan by reading the dictionary and he can no longer protect her from these competing cultural influences. The scenes relating to the immigrant experience are particularly effective.

While one strength of El-Hachmi's novel is this all encompassing horrific story, and doubtless where this does occur the patriarchal system protects the perpetrator, it is also potentially a weakness. There were several times that I wished the story focussed either on the cultural clash, or on a daughter brought up in an abusive household, or the impact of a child wanting to break away from tradition. I felt the story would have been more dramatic and moving if the daughter had faced these cultural clashes without being thrust away from tradition.

The Last Patriarch was originally published in Catalan, where it won the most prestigious Catalan language prize. But I couldn't help wondering if perhaps something has been lost in the translation. I found several of the style and grammar choices a significant hindrance to my enjoyment of this book. Firstly, there are no inverted commas (or any other device) for speech. Most of the time it's fairly clear but then you get a couple of people speaking together, split only by a full stop and confusion ensues - at least for me. Secondly, there is a tendency to overuse the third person pronoun - and it's often far from clear which 'he' is being referred to. While this may be the intention of the author, several times I had clearly imagined the wrong one and had to re-read the paragraph for sense. Thirdly, I suspect there has just been some editorial oversights. Take for example from fairly early on in the book this: Go to the barbers, Mimoun, his father nagged, but he turned a deaf ear, and, as it was after that big punch. He would have would have let it slide. At the time, it caused me to abruptly stop a reading session mid chapter (almost unheard of for me) and days later, it still makes no sense to me.

For me, that's a great shame as female voices with good stories to tell from cultures where that voice has been suppressed are vitally important, not least in fostering cross-cultural understanding. But there's something about this translation that hinders the clarity of that voice. The result was that I ended up loving the idea of the book more than the reality.

Many thanks to the kind folk of Serpent's Tale for sending the Bookbag a copy of this book.

Another translated work that addresses the female role in Islamic life is The Patience Stone by Atiq Rahimi which is deeply moving, while for more strong females fighting against cultural odds, then I can heartily recommend The Road to Wanting by Wendy Law-Yone. You might also be impressed by Precious by Sapphire.

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