The Last Patriarch

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The Last Patriarch By Najat El HachmiNajat Hachmi’s “The Last Patriarch” is a moving, sometimes shocking, story that focuses on an immigrant Moroccan family living in northern Spain. The story is narrated by the unnamed daughter of the patriarch of the book’s title, Mimoun. In the first half she tells the story of Mimoun’s upbringing in a small Moroccan village, where the handsome youth was pampered by his doting mother and sisters, and continues up to his migration to Spain. His daughter makes it clear that since these tales come from her father she can’t be sure how much truth they contain but as the story develops it appears that they must have been pretty close to it. She catalogues a cycle of violence and abuse that, while not necessarily typical of the culture, was at least allowed to exist because of it.

The second half of the book looks more at the experience of immigrants and while it does so from the point of view of this family, there are reflections that many immigrants will be able to identify with, especially when moving to a quite different culture. Like many teenage girls, Mimoun’s daughter comes into conflict with her father but for this family it’s much more than simple rebellion and protectiveness. Mimoun sees the traditions he grew up with being eroded and ultimately, the collapse of the patriarchal system: by succumbing to the pressure that will lead to change, he stands to be the “last patriarch”. As his daughter finds refuge in the literature of her adopted homeland, she moves further away from her father’s dreams.

I found “The Last Patriarch” a difficult book for several reasons. In terms of subject matter this is a challenging novel but it wasn’t so much the powerful accounts of the violence perpetrated by Mimoun, rather the juxtaposing of these episodes with happier memories that I found unsettling. The frequent rapid transformations of Mimoun from charming son or loving father to tyrannical patriarch had the effect of making him a caricature rather than a character.

“There is much to enjoy in “The Last Patriarch” but it suffers in that there is often too much.”

The writing style of the early part of the novel, in which his daughter describes Mimoun’s birth and childhood, felt like the telling of some ancient legend and jarred with the second half of the book which was more realistic in its narration. It’s possible, of course, that the English version suffers in the translation: El Hachmi’s novel was the first major novel in Catalan by a Moroccan author and was the recipient of a prestigious award for Catalan writing. However, I just don’t think it works so well In English: it’s not the fault of the translator; some sections are extremely good and evocative but, on the whole, it doesn’t flow as it should.

Another problem is the lack of conventional speech marks which makes it difficult at times to discern who is speaking: the dialogue is divided only by a full stop and this makes reading hard-going, so much so I was tempted to give up on a few occasions. To be even more confusing, outside of the dialogue there are more opportunities for confusion because of the gratuitous use of the third person which makes it irritatingly difficult to know who is doing what.

There is much to enjoy in “The Last Patriarch” but it suffers in that there is often too much. Family conflict, the experiences of an immigrant family, the success of a poor girl who does well: The Last Patriarch has all the attributes of an epic but somehow there was just too much drama for one novel and the important points were lost.

I wanted so much to enjoy this novel but I found it heavy going and annoying. There are some lovely moments here and there but ultimately it suffers from a surfeit of drama, trying to tell too many stories at once. If you’re willing to out the work in there are some rewards but, sadly, not enough for this reader.

The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi, published by Profile Books, April 2010, 224 pp

Thansk to Profile Books for providing a free review copy of the book.

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Last Patriarch (The)
by Najat El Hachmi

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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