Driss Chraïbi: Une enquête au pays (Flutes of Death)
Chraïbi’s novel is nominally a satire about Government officials from the big city – in this case two police officers from Casablanca – getting lost when carrying out an investigation in the back of beyond. The French title (which means An Investigation in the Country) conveys this much better than the odd English title, which only refers to an event right at the end of the book. Sometimes I wonder about the people who change titles when translating…
Two police officers, one who is called Mohammed (we only learn that later and even his subordinate was unaware of this), who is the Chief, and the other who is called Ali, who is the Inspector, which is a much lower grade than the English equivalent, have been sent to a rural area in Morocco for an investigation. Neither we nor Ali know the reason for the investigation till much later, though we do later learn that they are after a terrorist. Ali, who appears in other Chraïbi novels, is the alter ago of Chraïbi. While he is relatively well educated and can more or less get by in French, he is much more a man of the people than his somewhat supercilious boss, who clearly is not used to dealing with ordinary people. They set out for a remote village by car and soon find it very hot. They also, of course, get lost. When, eventually, they find the village, they meet an old man with a donkey, who gives them somewhat laconic answers to their questions and clearly considers them as stupid as they consider him. The village is clearly very poor, with the few houses in ruins and the soil hard and stony. The villagers seem to live in a cave, where the two police officers shelter from the heat.
Apart from a sumptuous meal in the evening not a great deal happens. The meal is obtained by one of the inhabitants gambling with the people in the plains but, once that is eaten, there is no more food and no more drink. Ali tries, not very successfully to speak to various inhabitants, including Hajja, the matriarch, a learned man called The Dictionary and some of the children. He sees what he thinks is a vision but it turns out to be Hajja’s great-nieces Yasmine and Yasmina. Meanwhile, Mohammed sits in the cave, dozing and ruminating and thinking that this is not what he wants to be doing. Naturally enough, it is the locals who outwit the police.
While the plot is interesting, much of the novel is taken up by the conversations between the two police officers and their respective ruminations. Mohammed is a bureaucrat and desk officer, who likes to kiss up to his bosses and abuse his subordinates but clearly is not suitable for this sort of work. Ali is far more street-smart. He used to be a petty criminal when a child and clearly has still retained the instincts he learned. While Mohammed praises his bosses, Ali, while not being totally disrespectful, has a more detached view and often questions – politely – their motives and actions. But there is no doubt that Chraïbi’s sympathies lie with the seemingly doltish peasants who are clearly far smarter than the city slickers.
First in French by Editions du Seuil 1981
First English translation 1985 by Three Continents Press
Translated by Robin Roosevelt