Just yesterday the Best Translated Book Award winner was named (see here), and The African Shore (La orilla african, 1999; tr. from the Spanish by Jeffrey Gray, 2013) was listed as a runner-up. It’s easy to see why: this is a short book, but it is rich as it deals with two individuals who simply cannot comprehend each other — they never will — and how this mutual incomprehension plays out in general in the historically great city Tangier.
Some familiarity with Tangier might be useful before diving in. I do want to give fair warning, though: I am not knowledgeable when it comes to Tangier, so this is a general overview gleaned from online resources, like Wikipedia — please forgive me if it’s got errors and correct me in the comments. But, here we go . . .
Due to its location at the mouth of the Straight of Gibraltar, Tangier has been an important port from times of antiquity to today. Indeed, from 1923 to 1945 (though it wasn’t officially part of Morocco until 1956), Tangier was deemed to have international status, meaning it was considered an autonomous city, independent of any nation. Typically such a classification is due to a city’s ethnic diversity and perhaps a history of contested claims (at the time Tangier was claimed by Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and others). Many civilizations have presided over the city, and you can still see their traces, even as the city continues to change.
It’s this diverse past and the continued change that Rey Rosa is addressing in The African Shore. , where two characters, as disparate as one can imagine, come into contact because of — of all things — an owl.
In the first section we meet Hamsa, a Moroccan shepherd, whose superstitions provide comedy at the same time they represent the downtrodden and the past. Mostly, Hamsa, when not preoccupied with dealing with loneliness in his own way, dreams of the future when he can immigrate to Spain. This future, we know, will never come. Hamsa may not even have a future, since he recently naively got tied up in the drug trade. Hamsa is interested in catching an owl someday, because an amulet made of an owls eye has protective powers.
In the next section we meet a Colombian tourist, whose name we do not learn until the end of the book. This man has lost his passport after a drunken night with prostitutes, and to him this is not a bad thing. His life in Colombia is falling apart, and he reaches out to his wife simply to ask for more money.
The stories will come together — slightly — because the Colombian purchases an owl on the street. First, though, is a series of misunderstandings — that’s too soft a word, since really there is no hope of “understanding” — as the tourist carries his owl around Tangier, looking for his next friend.
The culture and history are presented subtly. Hamsa wanders around remnants of the past, and the Colombian wanders around the mixed-up present. Some people help him — maybe — but others use him.
Perhaps most importantly, though, are the ways this culture and history presents itself in the characters’ lives, as seen from the owl’s perspective — perhaps the ultimate outsider. These sections are brief (but, then, all of the sections are brief), but they suggest some of the pitfalls lying between these characters, their cultures, the myriad worlds around them.