My Mother’s Voice
The migrant’s leap into the dark
In De stem van mijn moeder (My Mother’s Voice) Abdelkader Benali returns to his roots and his discovery of literature when twenty-years old. Literature was to shape his life. As in Bruiloft aan zee (Wedding by the Sea), the cheerful, quirky debut written in 1995 which was successful all over Europe, his new novel – written in an exuberant mix of styles and influences – tells a story which reaches a resounding climax.
‘I was a dodo who tried to fly to paradise to lay an egg,’ says the protagonist of De stem van mijn moeder, a successful young photographer. It’s a wonderful picture of his creator, Abdelkader Benali, a cosmopolitan writer whose illiterate parents emigrated from Morocco to The Netherlands. Benali is that dodo.
The photographer is recalled to his parental house in Rotterdam where his mother is seriously ill. She has not spoken for years, eating, drinking and praying in silence. When her son gets to speak on the phone not only to his desperate father, but to his mother too, he knows that he needs to go home – ‘She says something. Calls me by my name. She talks to me in that soft, calm voice which has faded from my memory. Her voice, which could always make me do whatever she wanted.’
At home, it slowly becomes clear why the mother was silent for so long: her son had a twin (‘like the two wings of a butterfly’), who had died in a tragic accident in Morocco when still very young. What happened is gradually revealed by a report the dead boy had written for his Dutch teacher about a journey in a yellow Mercedes 200 D with his parents, his brother and a ten-kilo jar of peanut butter – ‘It’s three thousand kilometres to Morocco, you said, but that I knew. Rotterdam-Antwerp-Paris-Bilbao-Madrid-Málaga-Melilla, and you’re there. Since you’ve asked me, I’m happy to write about our journey to grandma, grandpa and the horse with the long willy when it wants to pee.’
That ill-fated journey led to his death, made the father unhappy, rendered the mother dumb and made his twin brother, the future photographer, flee the house, which is filled with guilt and resentment. The tragic story is a metaphor for the leap into the dark which migrants make in order to succeed in a new world. Or in order to return from the new world to the old.
Some, like the young photographer, much in demand for quality work, apparently succeed. And yet the photographer cannot commit to his wife and sons, also twins. Others, with identical qualifications, fail hopelessly. Abdelkader Benali’s De stem van mijn moeder exposes, without cliché, without being predictable, the painful inner conflict and tragic fate of migrant children and their parents – ‘Migration has scattered us across this continent like poppy seeds on the stale bread that is Europe. We come together to play an imaginary drum, sing songs of the olden days and reminisce. Oblivion kills the heart of the migrant. If his children forget him, the migration monster will have consumed every scrap of his being.’