Abuse, feminism, and immigration: The Last Patriarch by Najat el Hachmi
This book is purposefully shocking, often difficult to read, and raises necessary questions – although it sometimes might go to far
“On that day, after three daughters, a first son was born to Driouch of Allal of Mohammed of Mohand of Bouziane, etc.”
So begins ‘The Last Patriarch’ by Najat el Hachmi. The book is by no means an easy read – it deals in some of the most difficult topics possible in a direct and cutting way. The translation, carried out by Peter Bush, leaves the reader with a lot to unpack and little to guide them – something which seems at times over the top, and at times hits the mark. One thing’s for sure: it gives a lot to think about.
So, what’s the main story?
The plot follows the life of Mimoun – from the morning of his birth in a small Moroccan village and the expectation surrounding it, to the events that supposedly shaped the person he was to be. It shows him building a life – and finding a mistress – in Catalonia, the birth of his daughter back in Morocco, him finally bringing his family to him. And it then follows his daughter’s life, all the way to Mimoun’s implied exit from it.
Indeed, the story can be split into two, although the transition happens gradually: Mimoun’s life, told before the birth of his daughter, seemingly by his daughter, full of suppositions and conditionals and “we’ll never know ifs.” Then, about halfway through the novel, one is introduced to his daughter. The book then shifts to her life, and this time, the retelling is first person.
Mimoun is shown to be – from the very beginning – sadistic, narcissistic, cruel, manipulative, and delusional. This then leads to abuse both emotional, physical, sexual, violent rape – even fratricide. The author delivers this information – already difficult to deal with – in a matter-of fact, simplistic, even humorous style. In a way, it’s reminiscent of downplaying news that’s too painful to look in the face.
This creates a curious response in a reader. At once, it both makes the events more shocking, as well as eliciting somewhat of a double-take, to check that, yes, “you read that right.” The frank tone also leaves the reader somewhat marooned with these awful events: they’re clearly to be condemned, but the book offers no solace. In fact it occasionally leans towards a very dark, ironic humor.
Let’s talk about abuse…
It also leaves the reader with an uncomfortable question. Can one both sympathize with the abused and also denounce them for the violence they perpetrate?
It’s notable to say that Mimoun is shown to be himself the victim of abuse – not only sexual, but also emotional, and physical. Inasmuch, the book is as much of a condemnation of the circle of abuse that you’ll ever find.
…feminism, and Islam
In some ways, the book revolves around feminist values: the second half of El Hachmi’s book features a strong woman – one who she ascribes with rebellious traits by acts like being born or staying alive as an infant. And while Mimoun is a cartoonish version of an abusive womanizer, the men that the daughter meets have a much more insidious disregard, one that younger generations can relate to as well. Still, there is a certain insinuation that mollycoddling from the family women is partly to blame for Mimoun blossoming into the poisonous being that he would later become.
However, this is difficult to untangle, in the novel, from the traditional roles in an old-world Morocco, and a strict Islam. And while drawing the line between condemning an entire culture and a religion for what it’s capable of producing, El Hachmi’s daughter character also bucks conventional roles – even to the point of no return.
The book squarely falls into various categories. It’s an intergenerational tale, and it’s a coming-of-age-story of both Mimoun and his daughter. Mimoun’s bildungsroman breaks stereotypes: what he learns he learns from delusion and pain, and he only becomes more manipulative and mad. Meanwhile, his daughter’s story is also transgressive in its own right: exploring what it means to become an adult in a frank way not often afforded to women.
It also is, in its own ironic way, an epic tale about destiny. It deals with the concept of faith wrily, and pushes the reader towards the potential fallacy of this narrative, showing Mimoun justifying his actions in pursuit of his destiny. It also focuses heavily on the importance of creating one’s own fate.
Najat el Hachmi’s Catalonia
The book is also very much a modern story about immigration, the clashing of cultures, and how to reconcile them into one life. El Hachmi herself is a first-generation immigrant from Morocco, like the book’s heroine. Indeed, the author’s first book is called ‘Jo també soc catalana,’ or, ‘I too am Catalan.’
El Hachmi too is a lover of Catalan literature, and has been writing since the age of twelve. ‘The Last Patriarch’ won the prestigious Ramon Llull prize in 2008, and it’s the first major novel written from both a Moroccan and Catalan perspective, a testament to the country’s diverse population.
Issues to be addressed
The book is ultimately quite unpleasant to read, partly for the subject matter, party for its treatment of them. This is perhaps how some issues need to be addressed: by staring them straight in the face. Still, there are some events that strike as gratuitous shock value and intentionally over the top – particularly the shocking ending.
‘The Last Patriarch’ is certainly not for everyone, and one may not describe it as pleasant. But one could also argue that necessary conversations seldom are, and that this is what makes literature important.