Streetwise – Mohammed Choukri, Telegram, translated by Ed Emery
It is a rare pleasure to read a book that speaks with a voice of its own, beyond the fact of its author. Two such books are Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky and Streetwise by Mohammed Choukri. Two more different books I could not think of to review together and yet both record the beauty and suffering that brought them into being with that raw honesty which is itself an ecstasy. The air crackles around them.
Choukri’s book records a homeless twenty year old Tangerine urchin’s struggle for instruction. “”I’m sorry,” said the headmaster, “We have a problem here. The reception class is for young boys and you’re almost a man. You’re old enough to shave already. And anyway, what the older boys should be doing is memorising the Koran and Ibn ‘Ashir’.”“
The book records a struggle for literacy. A struggle for life. Choukri slept in mosques, on streets, fed on the kindness of others, smoked kif, the local weed, “cheaper than cigarettes”, slept with prostitutes and found friendship in their company: “At the end of the street was a disused well. I went over to it. As I stared down into its dark, silent depths, I had a sudden urge to hurl myself head-first down the shaft. The silence seemed to awaken all the despair within me.”
Nemirovsky records instead the flight of Paris society into the countryside to escape Nazi occupation. A fiction rooted in fact, beautiful but no less stark, no less true than Choukri’s book: “The streets were empty. People were closing their shops. The metallic shudder of falling iron shutters was the only sound to break the silence, a sound familiar to anyone who has woken in a city threatened by riot or war.
One is the story of a terrible loss, about what to keep and what to surrender, what ludicrous choices we make in the face of our own mortality, how silly we can be made to seem, made to feel, when we are asked to examine our possessions: “The Péricands had been travelling for nearly a week and had been dogged by misfortune. They’d had to stay in Gien for two days when the car broke down. Further along, amid the confusion and unimaginable crush, the car had hit the truck carrying the servants and the luggage. That was near Nevers. Fortunately for the Péricands, there was no part of the provinces where they couldn’t find some friends or relatives with a large house, beautiful gardens and a well-stocked larder.”
The other is a story of incredible achievement in the face of insurmountable obstacles, of hope. Unencumbered by the accoutrements of success, of privilege, of pretension; taking refuge in a mental hospital; Choukri writes with a lucid, stripped-back liberty: “In the hospital people’s faces were actually made more beautiful by the misfortunes and worries that they’d endured in their lives. Hospital bread has its own particular taste. These mental patients opened the doors of inspiration for me, enabling me to look out into the world. Whenever I looked at one of the crazy people here, I saw a hidden flame of intelligence as old as humanity itself.”
Both books are incredibly well written, moving works of prose. Both books are paper testaments to their authors, to their ideas, to their struggles with life, with their own intelligence. As Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a letter to a friend, ten years before Choukri was born or Némirovsky began Suite Française: “people don’t seem to realise that for intelligent man writing down is the hardest thing in the world.” Both books are deserving of being read, and re-read, deserving of a favoured place on a bookshelf, of being in wider circulation. But for all of this, and for whatever reason, I cannot read them and love them as much as I do without knowing that Mohammed Choukri became Chair of Arabic Literature at Ibn Batuta College in Tangier and Irène Némirovsky died in Auschwitz.