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Fouad Laroui: Les Dents du topographe [The Teeth of the Topographer]

It really is quite surprising that this book has not been translated into English. It is witty, intelligent, well written and shows a country which few English speakers will be aware of, except for the tourist side. But then, there again, maybe that is why it has not been translated. It is semi-autobiographical but, at the same time, recounts lots of very amusing anecdotes and is highly critical of Morocco and Moroccan institutions. The story starts with the decision by a few drunken Moroccan officers to start a coup d’état. The narrator points out that he was 400 kilometres away at the time, playing by the port, so the coup had some but not much influence on him. The coup fails. We hear no more about the coup. The narrator belongs to a group called the Anti-Advertising Party (PAP), a rather playful group of young men who tear down advertising. We are introduced to some of the people he knows. Asslane, who is not very bright but a bit of a thug, wants to get a passport. He tries to apply for one but nothing happens, so he bribes someone. His application is rejected. He is furious, so he hangs around the police station, complaining all the time. Eventually the police ignore him. However, when they need a bit of a thug to encourage people to vote the right way in an election, he is hired. He does so well that he gets his passport (which he never uses) and is given a job as a police informer. At the next election, they need a false party to take votes from the opposition, so a party is created in Asslane’s name. Surprisingly, he wins, so he becomes a member of parliament. We meet Asslane when he hits the narrator over the head and drags him to a police cell. Asslane threatens him but merely wants to know where Nagi is, Nagi being one of the narrator’s friends from the PAP. Nagi, we learn, comes from very poor family, but manages to get into a good school when a teacher realises he has ability. Eventually he manages to go a French university, which is where he is when Asslane is looking for him. Asslane will finally accept the narrator’s story but, as he has missed several days school while in jail, he is thrown out of school.

He is now unemployed but looking for a job. He tries taking the tourist guide exam, at which he thinks he does well, but does not get the job, later realising that he failed to submit a bribe. (Several years later, he will meet a guide who successfully passed the exam (by bribing the examiner) who knows nothing about the history of Morocco or the palace he claims to want to show the narrator but can offer him marijuana or prostitutes.) Finally, he realises that bribing is the only way and buys a nurse’s diploma. He is sent to a remote village called Ahssen (presumably this place), where nothing much happens. He becomes like Yazidi, the pharmacy dispenser who spends his entire day staring into space, though Yazidi is eventually persuaded to tell his fantastic stories about the myths and legends of the place. Electricity finally comes to Ahssen and the brother of the village chief, on a visit, brings his portable TV. He finally gets it to work and it shows a news report of the visit of Ahmadou Ahidjo to Morocco, though no-one has any idea who he is. At that point it is very late and broadcasting finishes for the night. The next day there is a problem with the electricity so there is no TV. The brother parts the following day with the TV, so all the villagers have seen is Ahmadou Ahidjo. Ahidjo soon takes on the status of a legendary figure, almost a God-like being. The narrator later receives a visit from Fadma, a young woman who wants him to shelter her, as her parents are forcing her to marry a man with no nose. He agrees to do so and the inevitable happens. Her father complains but she, apparently, has a reputation. The narrator has to leave the village but with no consequences. After being offered and declining a job with an NGO called F.A.R.C.E., he is sent to see the police chief Zniga. Zniga has a reputation of having killed de Gaulle. Apparently, he got up one morning and, seeing the photo of de Gaulle on his wall, tore it into shreds. De Gaulle died that same day. He gets the narrator a passport and he goes off to France.

There we meet the painter, discovered in Morocco by a couple of French tourists, who can paint in the style of Chirico and other painters but who gives up painting when he sees Picasso paintings, as he feels that they are the devil’s work. The narrator returns to Morocco to work in a cobalt mine as the chief engineer and it is there where we learn about the topographer’s teeth and what gave the novel its title. Laroui’s anecdotes are imaginative and witty, his mocking of the Moroccan system is harsh but funny, his style often anarchic and he tells his story very well. I really did enjoy this book and can only regret that it has not been translated into English but, as far as I can see, only into Dutch.

Publishing history

First in French by Editions Julliard 1996
No English translation
Fìrst published in Dutch as De tanden van de topograaf in 2002 by Van Oorschot
Translated by Frans van Woerden