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Pat Gray: Mr. Narrator
Our narrator is called Basil Narrator. Yes, wittily enough, the narrator is called narrator. Basil (only his mum calls him that) is a British engineer, based in the highly fictitious town of Goughly in (a fictitious) Morocco. He is involved in a project to construct a pump-house. However, at the beginning of the book he will receive a letter from his colleague, Munton, who is based in the capital, wittily called Tabar (i.e. Rabat a back to front) telling him that there is a problem withe the pump-house deal caused by some bureaucrat called Zoboti, of whom he has not heard.
We gradually learn that in Morocco,or, at least, in this Morocco, nothing is straightforward. Getting directly to Mr Zoboti will not be easy but there are ways and they start with the Bicycle Repair Man. The Bicycle Repair Man has contacts in the capital, namely a cousin who works in the ministry but, it seems, the cousin has disappeared.
Things get more mysterious when Basil sees Mr. Zoboti’s blurred photo in the paper. He calls for another copy of the paper but though it is also that day’s paper Mr Zoboti’s photo is no longer there. Things get worse when a man accidentally(?) burns Basil’s paper with the blurred photo of Zoboti.
Of course things get worse still. There is a system in Morocco, as in any other country, but it requires that you know how to play the game and know the key players. Basil knows a few minor ones but not enough. Take the telephone for example. You have to know the man who knows how to connect to where you want to connect to and he does not come cheap and it is, well, complicated.
Basil lives with Murphy, a writer whose work he is often asked to critique: (characters a bit flat is his view on Murphy’s latest work) though Murphy seems more interested in bedding Maria than writing.
Basil now decides he has to go to Tabar but of course that is complicated and the trains are uncomfortable and full of lizards. Bicycle Repair Man joins him as he is now caught in the bureaucratic maelstrom since he no longer has his cousin to help. Not surprisingly it does not work out too well for either man.
We follow our hero in what could be called five plots. Firstly, he seems to have become tied to Bicycle Repair Man. They even share a room. Secondly, there is his messy sex live as, of course, sex lives in novels are. Thirdly, there is Murphy who sends him reams of paper containing his latest work and it seems that he, Basil, may feature highly in this work. Fourthly, he spends time wandering round Tabar and is not impressed by what he sees: poverty, pollution, urban decay.
Most importantly, of course there is his attempt to get through the labyrinthine bureaucracy, perhaps even get to the great Zoboti and get his project approved. What is interesting is that while he has considerable difficulty, he has doors opening for him that the ordinary Moroccan does not and we see many Moroccans struggling far more than he does to gain access to decision-makers. Indeed, there is an army of helpers outside the ministry building to help them – translatiors (it seems that documents must be in English, French and Arabic), typists and the like all ready to help – for a fee – the ordinary Moroccan get through the system. Gray skilfully mixes in humour, frustration and surrealism, in a manner reminiscent of some Czech novels to show that, basically, you have little hope of even finding your man, let alone getting to him to see things your way.
As Maria says at the end We are all base, utterly base, there is nothing at all beautiful in anything, while for Basil the very apposite phrase logic of loneliness is used.
It is a fairly short novel but Gray gets his points over well as we follow Basil, a man who is vaguely optimistic he can find his way round he system but, ultimately, is going to be just as lost as anyone. And anyone can mean not just the ordinary Morroccan but the officials who one day may be ruling the roost and the next out on the street, leaving them and their followers lost and lonely.
First published in 1989 by Dedalus Books