Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "By Fire" by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...among other things no one will ever find out about. 
Issue: Sept. 16, 2013

Story: "By Fire"

Author: Tahar Ben Jelloun

Plot: A 30-year old Moroccan man, Mohammed, inherits a fruit vending cart after his father dies. Mohammed has been to University, and has a degree in the Humanities. However, he is relegated to selling fruit on the streets and being harassed by local police, because of institutionalized economic decay and a corrupt police force. As Mohammed's life is made more and more miserable by the police, and he refuses to cave in to their ridiculous demands regarding forms, permits, bribes, and even an attempt to have him spy on his former school-mates, Mohammed decides to fight back by visiting the town's Mayor. Unable even to see the mayor, he is abused by police, and ultimately lights himself on fire in protest. This ignites a storm of public outcry against the corrupt government, an outcry which touches off (we are supposed to imagine) the Arab Spring.

Review: Okay, forget about looking at this story as a "story" in the traditional sense. There is no character arc; it's more of a nose dive. The character does not learn anything; instead he kills himself in frustration and anger. There is no resolution, no "emotional payoff."

This is more of a narrative-essay, shall we call it, which seeks to shed light on the causes of the perpetual unrest that seems to go on inside many Arab nations. The author is essentially saying: "Here's why the Arab Spring happened; here's why so many Arabs are pissed off." Why? Because at every level -- federal down to local -- they are ground-down by corruption and face lives of withering opportunities. 

This is an important point and people should pay attention to stories like these. It's important to recognize that, as ailing and dysfunctional as our own government is here in the U.S., and as many problems as we face, we (most of us) still have it pretty damn good over here. It's easy to lose site of that. 

However, this wasn't very fun to read. I'm just gonna leave it at that. 


Anonymous said…
"There is no resolution, no 'emotional payoff.'"

True, but I think that was the point.
Your last sentence is the understatement of the year. This story has left me severely depressed.
Why must we live in such a cruel world?

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apo…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…