Exile and the Kingdom
But despite his rhetorical militancy, Mamed isn't particularly brave either. Reflecting on the failed coup, he says, "We knew only too well what those military officers who attacked the king's garden party were capable of. Morocco narrowly escaped a Fascist regime." The alternative to that regime was, however, a pro-West monarch who brutally repressed his critics. Yet like Ben Jelloun's detractors on the left, Mamed remains quiet--as quiet as Ali. After finishing medical school and leaving Tangier for Sweden, he seems to find a certain happiness with the "silence" and "order" of that country. Eventually, though, he starts to miss the old country, especially when he notices that his children "don't speak a word of Arabic" and "think of Morocco as a vacation place." This is why he decides to buy the apartment in Tangier, and why he asks Ali to help him furnish it and take care of the paperwork. Mamed's explanation for the breakup of the thirty-year relationship is heartbreaking, leaving the reader to reflect on the preciousness of friendship.
At this point, Ben Jelloun's narrative thread breaks again, and the Spaniard Ramon, who grew up in Tangier with Ali and Mamed, gives us his take on the events in the third and final part of the novel. "I understood that it was not simply a question of differing points of view," he begins. And indeed, what we discover in Ramon's account demonstrates that the bonds of friendship can be as strong as, and no less complicated than, those of love. Betrayal and desertion are not the cruel acts we imagine them to be. In Ben Jelloun's novel, they can also become carefully wrought expressions of love that lead, one day, to forgiveness.
Ben Jelloun's prose in The Last Friend is blunt, a stark contrast to the poetic, even hallucinatory style that characterized his early work, like Harrouda, or the lyrical passages of This Blinding Absence of Light. At times, the narrative voice slips into exposition or summary. When Ali talks about Mamed, he says simply, "I suddenly saw in him an unhappy young man, profoundly ill at ease, who disliked himself and everyone else, too. He needed psychiatric help. He wanted to try some kind of therapy, but he didn't want people to think he was crazy. He...generally kept to himself. I was the only person he would see. He trusted me, and made every effort to temper his mean streak. He retained his sense of irony, but used it more wisely."
This style of writing prevents the reader from fully engaging in the psychological life of the two narrators, which is odd, since The Last Friend is told in the first person--surely one of the best ways of letting us into the inner lives of fictional characters. Instead, they remain intractably distant from the reader. Of course, one of the central themes of the novel is the idiosyncratic nature of memory, so the narrators' evasiveness makes some sense. But by depriving the reader of a chance to witness events directly, Ben Jelloun is also depriving us of a chance to make up our own minds about the events as they happened. You will never know, he seems to say, because you weren't there. All you have is our individual recollections.
The Last Friend is more than the story of a friendship; it is the story of a generation of activists, writers and intellectuals who were caught between their desire to improve the lot of their country and their fear of a ruthlessly brutal regime, whose atrocities have just begun to be exorcised. As their work in Souffles makes abundantly clear, they loved their homeland; but they also hated their government, a stance that was not to be tolerated. Those who survived those years were intimidated and, in the end, silenced. Until now.