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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?

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