My copy of Mohamed Choukri’s somewhat messy (in its organization), somewhat undisciplined (in its structure), occasionally rambling and often capricious (in a way that must mirror Choukri’s mind) memoir of his personal relationships with Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams and especially Paul Bowles—In Tangier—has more intentionally dog-eared pages than most of the books I read. This is because Choukri combines his forthright, unrepentant and keen observational talents with privileged first and second-hand access to three literary legends, all of whom responded to his curiosity and his questioning with sometimes welcome and revealing candor. And practically everything Choukri has to say about these writers—as well as himself—is worth noting.
Choukri kept a journal and he relies upon his journal entries for a large amount of what he recalls—often verbatim—regarding his encounters with these famous writers. Choukri was an aspiring writer himself—twenty-five years younger than Paul Bowles—when he met these writers in a place that was only ever home to one of them. And it is Paul Bowles, and to a lesser extent his wife Jane, that Choukri knew best, and to whom he devotes well over half of his book.
Choukri, who learned to read and write only once he had become a young man was befriended and supported (at least artistically) by Bowles, who translated the memoir For Bread Alone into English. And though Choukri seems to have admired Bowles in many ways, and must have been grateful to him for launching Choukri’s international career as a writer, Choukri does not hesitate to say whatever it is that he wants or feels that he has to say about Paul Bowles or anyone else.
Paul was miserly in the extreme, which he had every right to be. He didn’t, however, have the right to commandeer the profits from the publishing rights of my books that he had translated, without giving me any share in them. I never received a cent for these books, apart from the meager advance I was allowed when the contract was signed. What’s more, in each of these contracts, he collared 50 per cent of the translation rights!
The Moroccan proverb Choukri chooses as an epigraph for the long part of his book that is devoted to Bowles suitably expresses the ambivalence Choukri must have felt about any debts of gratitude he owed to Bowles.
If you are my enemy, I’ll kill you for money, but if you’re my friend, I’ll kill you for free.
Despite Choukri’s criticism of Bowles character—he basically accuses Bowles of being both a colonialist and a racist as well as being miserly—this study of Bowles the man and the work he created does not, in my opinion, involve the settling of any scores, and neither is it particularly judgmental, although Choukri never flinches and always says whatever it is he feels he has to say, about anyone at all, including himself. Choukri is always brutally honest. He doesn’t flinch from what he regards as that which he is seeing. And brutal honesty might be the book’s sole intention. That, and making some money out of his relationships with Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles.
Choukri made himself into a writer, and he did this first by learning to read and write at the age of twenty. Once he could read he seems to have read voraciously and not only the works of those writers he might have been interested in, but everything and anything about these writers. This is what every aspiring writer does, he or she tries to learn as much as they can about the writing life and its processes, and about the characters of those individuals who have excelled in this field of almost impossible endeavor.
But Choukri seems to have always been trying to catch up. And to figure things out. So as much as In Tangier is an often intimate portrait of three great 20th century literary figures, it is also always as much about Choukri and his effort as a writer to figure things out as it is about Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams or Paul Bowles.
Jane dedicated her brilliance to life itself, in contrast to Paul, who poured his talent into his musical scores and books, with little thought for sexual passion, excepting his love of Jane. Jane sacrificed literature for life, while Paul gave his life to literature, with his customary reserve. He conceals his secrets even from himself…as Dyer in Let it Come Down says: ‘It was the same old sensation of not being involved, of being left out, of being beside reality rather than it.’ Rimbaud, in contrast, merged literature and life with no second thoughts. He put his heart on the table, as three or four geniuses in every century will do, as Céline said; the others are merely playing a game of writing and imitation.
The reader can see in this one paragraph the way Choukri observes the two living writers he admires and knows personally while also critiquing their characters (Janes reckless abandon compared to Paul’s “customary reserve”) and drawing from Pauls’ work; at the same time he places the two of them as well as himself—this is implicit in the text—in the context of Rimbaud’s daring example and Céline’s assertion regarding that which only literary geniuses are willing or able to do.
As Paul Bowles wrote in his introduction to For Bread Alone, “It seems almost a stroke of luck that Choukri’s encounter with the written word should have come so late, for by then his habits of thought were already fully formed (5).” Choukri’s habits of thought are the habits of observation and survival, and every word he writes reflects this necessity of toughening and protecting himself when necessary. Choukri is never sentimental. And this might explain the long attachment and relationship with his mentor-of-sorts, because Bowles was never sentimental either.
Bowles suffered physically at the end of his life, and since he refused to leave Tangier Choukri was there to observe his suffering.
Fortunately, Paul fears death like everyone else, without turning it into a personal tragedy. At the same times he has no regrets, even if he’s hurt some people through his behavior, or through his books, replete as they are with all manner of evil, atrocity, and violent death. Moreover, he never took a vow of piety, and so has no need to seek forgiveness for anything.
This paragraph precedes the paragraph quoted above in which Choukri details the way his friend swindled him of the royalties for the books Choukri had written and Bowles translated. But Choukri could have been talking about himself when he refers to the lack of regrets and the pain he might have caused others, as a consequence of the evil and violence with which he had to deal while growing up. Neither man seems to have made any vow at all, and therefore there is indeed nothing to be forgiven either of them.
Photo by cat_collector – Tangier, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45429710