The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers
On a routine visit to Belgium to buy 20 million pounds of wheat, a Moroccan government official finds his trousers have disappeared. In the ensuing farce, Dassoukine, the government official, is mistaken for a thief, a freeloader, a hoaxer, or a “Moro.” As Mark Twain once wrote, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” Fouad Laroui's new book of interrelated short stories, The Curious Case of Dassoukine's Trousers, is very funny. Translated from the French by Emma Ramadan the stories confront the everyday indignities and suffering endured by Moroccans.
Many stories revolve around a group of friends gathered at Café de l'Univers. These proud Casablancans boast and cajole, joke and theorize. As Laila Lalami states in her introduction, Mr. Laroui writes about “characters who are caught between rosy nostalgia and dark humor. Laroui's prose moves fluidly between languages, between high and low culture, between affecting personal commentary and sharp cultural observation.” It is a life involved with “constant code-switching.”
This may have to do with Laroui's own biography. Born in a small village in Morocco, he studied in French, received his PhD in England, and teaches econometrics and environmental science in Amsterdam. He writes in several languages. Fiction in French, poetry in Dutch, academic and nonfiction work in English. This multilingual mastery brings to mind other masters of comic literature like James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov.
Like Nabokov, Laroui is attuned to the absurdities of tyranny. In the story “Bennani's Bodyguard,” Dadine, the narrator, waxes nostalgic saying, “an age when three people out of two were in the police, where snitches abounded, where you could be denounced by your own shadow—the bitch.”
Laroui was born in 1958, two years after the end of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco. After the French and Spanish occupations, Morocco endured the absolutist rule of King Hassan II. Gradual reforms only occurred in the 1990s.
Laroui casts his eye on this dour political legacy with the scalpel-like precision of a social satirist. His strategy doesn't involve humorless sermonizing or a frontal assault on Morocco's tragic human rights legacy. Instead, he approaches crab-wise, creating a common meeting place for absurd arguments and demented histories. The argumentative friends who meet at the Café de l'Univers give the café a zany energy. Imagine the Algonquin Roundtable populated only by the Marx Brothers.
Hamid, the storyteller in “The Invention of Dry Swimming,” explains political power, “Don't forget that this story takes place at the beginning of the our ’70s. Everything related, closely or distantly, to the Palace made the masses tremble in fear. The man who buttons up Hassan II's shirt cuffs has more power than a minister. He who shines his boots commands generals. So, his chef! I don't know how the evanescent clerk procured that business card but he hinted that the king's head butler was a cousin of his and, as a result, this calling card that he only exhibited on rare occasions conferred on him an infinite prestige. You didn't mess around with Talal's father.”
In addition to this absurd description, Laroui has written it in French, the language of the previous colonial regime. This encapsulates both the universalizing theme of lowbrow comedy and how Laroui illuminates the particularities of Moroccan history and culture.
It is in these particulars that make Laroui an essential addition to the canon of World Literature. While his CV exemplifies a cosmopolitan intellectual and esteemed academic scientist, he doesn't let his multilingual mastery sand down the edges of individual experience. Writing in French, Dutch, and English doesn't yield a globalized blandness, but a rich biography he sifts through the filter of absurd humor, formal experimentation, and a warm humanism.