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The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Trans. by Jeffrey Gray – Why This Book Should Win

Christopher Schaefer’s reviews and interviews have appeared in World Literature Today and The Quarterly Conversation. He lives in Paris.

Like many American readers, I stumbled upon Rodrigo Rey Rosa thanks to Bolaño. How could you not be willing to check out a previously unheard-of Guatemalan author after encountering praise like this:

To say that Rodrigo Rey Rosa is the most rigorous writer of my generation and at the same time the most transparent, the one who better weaves his stories and the most luminous of them all, is saying nothing new.

Of course, if you are distanced in time, in place, and especially in language from Bolaño’s generation, his observation will, in point of fact, be something new. With his superb translation of Rey Rosa’s The African Shore, Jeffrey Gray has enabled an English-speaking readership to judge the above praise for themselves.

The African Shore is the story of an unlikely encounter in the most international of cities, Tangier. Its first part follows the kif-smoking Hamsa, a Moroccan shepherd boy who has recently become involved in the drug trade in an attempt to ameliorate his socio-economic condition. The second part follows a Colombian tourist who has lost his passport after a crazy night of alcohol and whores. Stranded in a strange land, he gradually becomes more enmeshed in complex relationships of vague desire and mutual incomprehension. All the while, the life that he left behind slowly fades into remote irrelevance. In Tangier, the focal point of his relationships with others—and ultimately of the novel itself—is an owl. The Colombian buys it from a ragged boy on the street for a few dirhams, and it quickly becomes an object of adoration and a site of contention, propelling the narrative forward.

In that narration, what impresses me most is the ambiguous specificity of the writing. Rey Rosa demonstrates a profound mastery of negative capability, all the more impressive given the diversity of his subject matter. He manages to evoke a world of complexity—Latino tourists and unquestioning locals, economic migrants and drug peddlers, and even French residents not all too far removed from their colonialist fore-bearers—with the sparsest of prose. His depiction of post-colonial Tangier, significantly evolved from the Tangier of his mentor Paul Bowles, is pitch perfect and rings true to my years in Morocco. For an author relating a story about the mutual incomprehension of cross-cultural encounters, Rey Rosa shows just how much he really gets people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Occasionally, a quarter page exchange will distill the essence of hour-long conversations I’ve had with French people or Hispanics, or Moroccans.

Rey Rosa’s novel is a delicately constructed miniature model. Its brevity and ease of reading are deceptive. The chapters rattle by; most are not much more than a page or two. When I finished, I had to ask myself if there shouldn’t have been something more. After setting it down and going about my day, though, it returned to me, its elaborate intricacy growing on me all the while. Rey Rosa’s masterful narrative has been remarkably conveyed into English by Jeffrey Gray. He could easily have upset this striking balance at so many points, and yet he didn’t. The rigor and transparency come through. For that accomplishment, it deserves very serious consideration for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award.

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