It all started in 1944, when Mathilde met Amine. The Moroccan regiment was stationed in the village of Alsacienne, a few kilometers from Mulhouse, and the young woman had served as a guide for the soldier who was waiting to leave for the East. Mathilde was not particularly pretty, very tall, taller than he, with broad shoulders and boy’s calves. But “Her eyes were green like the water in the fountains of Meknes, and she did not take her eyes off Amine.” The young woman was burning with envy for something else, besides, she was even burning all at once. “During the war, on evenings of desolation and sadness, Mathilde enjoyed herself in the icy bed of her bedroom, upstairs. When the alarm announcing the bombs sounded, when the roar of an airplane began to be heard, Mathilde ran, not for her survival, but to satisfy her desire. ” So, before this man with a full and strong body, she succumbed and quickly found herself some 25 kilometers from Meknes, Morocco, in the farm bequeathed to Amine by her father, Kadour Belhaj, former translator in the colonial army .
This is how Mathilde the Alsatian became Moroccan, struggling to find moments of celebration in the arid life that Amine offers her, between peeled earth and bulky family, between suspicious looks on her white skin that we associate to the colonists, and solitude weighed down with boredom. Very quickly, Aïcha will be born, savage thin as a grasshopper, then Selim, confit of love and cakes. Sources of comfort.
This woman, Mathilde, is the grandmother of Leïla Slimani, at least she looks like her because the author of Soft song, Prix Goncourt 2016, set out to tell the family saga in the form of a large Franco-Moroccan fresco. And this first volume, written with breath and a great power of evocation, keeps its promises. Here we are. Subtitled “La guerre, la guerre, la guerre”, it covers ten crucial years for Morocco, between the end of the Second World War and the rise in tensions and fighting which led in 1956 to the independence of the former French protectorate . The war is one in which many Moroccans have participated on behalf of France, risking their lives for a country that will not be grateful to them. The war is that which the dominant and dominated will wage, to use a recent formula, and it is clear in this book that the resentment of Moroccans towards the settlers will quickly turn into anger. War is also the war that Mathilde will fight every day to herself to remain dignified in a country and a family that are falling apart. “As a teenager, Mathilde never thought that it was possible to be free on her own, it seemed unthinkable to her, because she was a woman, because she was uneducated, that her fate was not intimately linked to that of another. She had realized her mistake much too late and now that she had discernment and a little courage it had become impossible to leave. The children were her roots and she was attached to this land, despite herself. Without money, there was nowhere to go and she was dying of this dependence, this submission “, writes Leïla Slimani.
Mathilde will not give up either her dreams or her games, cutting garlands from old rags to brighten up Christmas Eve to the sound of muezzin, making dolls with tea towels and panty buttons. She will demand that Aïcha go to school, she wants her free and conquering, all that she cannot be because, for her, it is too late. Mathilde has made a choice, she must stick to it and she will stick to it, whatever it costs her. “How could she have admitted that the man she met during the war was no longer the same? Under the weight of worries and humiliations, Amine had changed and darkened. How many times had she felt, walking on her arm, the heavy gaze of passers-by? The touch of her skin seemed to her hot, unpleasant, and she couldn’t help but perceive, with a form of disgust, the strangeness of her husband. She told herself that it took a lot of love, more love than she felt capable of feeling, to endure the contempt of people. “It took a solid, immense, unshakeable love to endure shame when the French grasped him, when the police asked him for his papers, when they apologized when he noticed his war medals or his perfect command of the language.” Everything is said in this passage. Love, and war.
Leïla Slimani The Land of Others
Gallimard, 368 pp., € 20.