“She was very brave, she spoke Arabic and Berber. She was a funny woman, an independent woman who told us so many stories from her childhood.”
When Leila Slimani talks about her grandmother, there’s noticeable affection in her voice. His latest novel, The country of others, is inspired by the life of her grandmother, a blonde, blue-eyed Frenchwoman who came to live in Morocco after World War II to marry Slimani’s grandfather. The result is a powerful, illuminating and often disturbing historical novel.
After the Second World War, Morocco was still occupied by the French. From the 1830s, France began to establish its second colonial empire, which became one of the largest in history, occupying much of North Africa. Decolonization did not accelerate until the end of the Second World War.
A hard life for women
This is also the time when The country of others Begins, Slimani’s first historical novel. In 1947, a young couple moved to a farm near Meknes in northern Morocco: Mathilde is a young Alsatian in France. She met her husband Amine when he fought in the Free French Forces to liberate France from Nazi occupation.
Leila Slimani describes life in Morocco at the time as difficult, especially for women. When the book was first released in France in 2020, she spoke to DW about her grandmother and life in Morocco in the 1950s, highlighting the injustice and harshness of the colonial and patriarchal regime: ” Of course there were people who were a little more open, of course there were instances of mutual respect, I don’t want to deny that, but in the book I wanted to address the ‘intimate suffering ‘, personal pain.”
This is what distinguishes the writing of Leila Slimani: in all her novels, she highlights this “intimate suffering”, this pain which can only be inflicted on those we love and on ourselves. In his first novel, Adele, a nymphomaniac woman suffers from isolation in the French countryside. In her second novel, the psychological thriller Lullaby, a nanny murders two children in her care. In the country of others, the young couple in Morocco will continue to despise, love, fight and threaten each other with death while raising their children amid violent outbreaks of the Moroccan independence movement.
Revival of the European historical novel
The European historical novel has seen a revival in recent years, with writers like Hilary Mantel exploring the cosmopolitanism of Tudor England in Wolf Hall, Bring the bodies and The mirror and the light. She is the first author to win the prestigious Booker Prize twice, both for hall of wolves and Bring the bodies. German writer Daniel Kehlmann was recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize with his historical novel Tyllset in 17th century Europe during the Thirty Years’ War, for which Netflix grabbed the television rights.
Unlike Mantel or Kehlmann, Slimani focuses on the lives of women – and the men they engage with. Her unique ability lies in exposing the pain that comes with love, with motherhood, with war and living under colonial rule or the domination of patriarchy, relentlessly, in all its ambivalence, without ever leaving the position of interested, almost scientific observer.
As readers, we are not told what to feel, what to think. We are simply shown what history was made of, what life was made of in the past — and what it is still made of today.
It is this quality that has made the Franco-Moroccan feminist writer a star of the French and international literary scene. Formerly a journalist at Young Africa (Jeune Afrique), Slimani became a freelance writer after being arrested while covering human rights abuses and the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2011.
lullaby won him the Prix Goncourt, France’s most renowned literary prize. She also wrote a book about women and their life in Morocco titled Sex and lies: sex life in Morocco. Since 2017, she has been the personal representative of French President Emmanuel Macron to promote French language and culture.
Yet, as she told DW in 2020, her legacy is questioned everywhere she goes: “In Morocco, I’m told I’m too French, too Western, that I don’t represent my country. In France, sometimes people will tell me that I’m not really French because I have roots in Morocco. So I get it, I know what it’s like to live in other people’s country.”
The country of others is the first in a trilogy of historical novels, tracing the life of the Belhajs family from World War II to the 2000s. The English translation of Sam Taylor’s book has been published by Faber & Faber and is available from August 5 2021.