Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh

Canetti, Elias (2005), Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, Fischer
ISBN 978-3-596-22103-5

In the decade after the second world war, Elias Canetti,winner of the Nobel prize for Literature in 1981, was then a somewhat unknown expatriate writer living in London, a man born in Bulgaria, who was raised in Switzerland and Austria and became a writer in the 1930s, just before the Nazis bundled existing forces and convictions in Germany and Austria and took power. In 1938, he left Austria and went to live in England, where he met many people; two of his friends, about to shoot a film in Morocco, invited him to come along. So, in 1954, Canetti joined a film crew and traveled to Marrakesh in Morocco. Over a decade later, in 1967 he published Die Stimmen von Marrakesch: Aufzeichnungen nach einer Reise, (translated into English by J.A. Underwood as The Voices of Marrakesch (Marion Boyars Publishers)) his travel account of that journey. The book, which describes an immersion into a palpably alien culture, is remarkably short at about a hundred pages. It consists of fourteen short chapters, several as short as three pages, each of which seems independent of the others, creating the impression of loosely connected stories, interlinked by a general sense of chronology and build, but these links are not necessary to understand and interpret each, let’s call them: vignette. These are short, concise description of a certain aspect of Marrakesh, of a certain event, smell or sound, of a certain person or group that the narrator met.

I admit, I have not always been the greatest of fan of Mr. Canetti’s work. When I first read it, I have found his autobiography, published in three volumes from 1977 to 1985, somewhat overlong, rambling and self-indulgent, although fascinating and full of arresting episodes and images. I have come round to it in the meantime, appreciating it for the masterpiece it is. I am still not convinced by much in his major philosophical non-fiction work, the massive (and certainly brilliant) Masse und Macht, published in 1960. I cannot, however, find fault with Die Stimmen von Marrakesch. Each of its chapters is written with a precision and economy of means that makes them less like reportage than like prose poems. In the few pages over which Canetti has spread his account, there is enough material to fuel books twice as long. At the same time, reading it, one doesn’t feel the economy, the book has a sumptuous, easy feeling to it, evoking the Suks and mosques of Marrakesh, its merchants, mendiants and its mad people. All of this is structured by an emotional and spiritual hunger, an openness to shock, to violence, to the Other, that is directly transmitted to the reader, who cannot put down this slim book until he has devoured every last page and then puts it away, deeply moved and in deep thought. At least that’s what happened to me.

There are many concerns in Die Stimmen von Marrakesch, but the most central one, as in all travel accounts, is the yearning to understand this alien country, to read it in a way so it makes sense to you. Canetti differs from many writers in that he doesn’t want to understand it, he doesn’t learn the language or get a translator whom he drags around with him on his tours through the narrow and dusty streets of Marrakesh. At one point he outright declares his preference to hear speeches, prayers and entreaties with his bare ear, so to say, to hear the sounds, the raw emotions as they are rasped through the vocal chords of the natives. That said, Canetti speaks French and English perfectly, and most natives can understand and speak French, so his communication with the natives, inasmuch as food and similarly important issues are concerned, is not impeded in a significant manner. His decision not to learn Arabic only concerns his observations, his scrutiny of his environment. He may not be driven by a wish to understand, but his eye is that of a classic ethnologist, and Marrakesh is his village. Nothing enters or leaves this village except him and others like him.

This immobility is encapsulated in his account of a destitute and clearly desperate woman at a bar, who is being pimped out to rich and ugly men by her lover. The men need to be ugly so his jealousy is not awakened. She gets beaten if she recoils from sex and she gets beaten if she takes pleasure in it. Meanwhile, her lover has his own income as the gay lover of the son of a local potentate. This son has had to leave the country at the behest of his father and the strange couple is thus left to their own devices, which mostly means a live in poverty. He won’t leave, and she can’t. Canetti’s village is in a state of stasis and even though foreigners pass through and can even become part of it all, the city has an internal logic all its own: everything points back to Marrakesh. Canetti, in passing, mentions money, touches upon issues of wealth and poverty, implies exploitative mechanisms, hints at problems brewing beneath the surface, but hints they remain. Canetti’s book isn’t a journalistic account of a country and it neither possesses nor aspires to possession of a journalistic or even scientific precision.

In these accounts there is always a danger, to an extent inescapably, of colonizing the alien, the strange country, to read it in terms of your anatomy tables and take heed not of the country as it meets you, but to read it only in terms of difference, to remark upon that which is strange, with reference to one’s own everyday givens. Many of these accounts go even further than that: by not reflecting one’s own situation, situatedness, they colonize everything off the self-established norm as deviant. One luminous, problematic example of such a writing is Goethe’s massive, brilliant account of his travel to Italy, which implicitly treats women, effeminate men and similar ‘deviants’ as symptoms of the foreign country. In Die Stimmen von Marrakesch Canetti shows himself quite aware of this problem, quite aware, too, of the alterity of that other country. Aware of the anatomical function of language, of the interpretative and defining power of translation, Canetti decides to skip language. With an enormous spiritual appetite, he opens himself up to the sounds of Marrakesh.

There are the noises of begging children, chiding, playing, laughing, begging, even instructing him how to perform a religious ritual. There is a madwoman on a balcony, who whispers to him, words in different shades the tone of which he fails to read in a consistent manner. The chapter that is about her shows a progression from bare listening to an effort to understand, which makes him, in the end, read her as a madwoman. The interconnectedness of some processes of thinking and the establishment of certain categories is demonstrated by chapters like this, where we see Canetti’s thoughts move from gentle questing, questioning, to a full interrogation. Whenever he enters this last state, he either starts to categorize people in a way that he, quite obviously, is himself uneasy to do, but which may be, to an extent, inevitable, or, as in a later chapter, he is moved to disgust by what he readily recognizes as his own morals (and there is quite a bit of patronizing inherent in the explicit stating of this, too).

None of these are flaws of this, really, flawless book. These are flaws inherent in the process, and it’s one of the book’s main strengths that it provides a structure and a context for these flaws that it makes them part of its rhetorical thrust and construction. The titular voices appear and reappear in different contexts (a screaming camel in the powerful first chapter that is dragged to be slaughtered is another memorable one), but as the book progresses, we find that they gravitate around two centers. One is belief, the other is fear. Belief is always present in that country, which wears its convictions on its sleeve. There is the belief in God, transmitted through public prayers and through numerous beggars who repeat the word Allah, all day, chanting themselves into a trance. All this, Canetti feels, is powered by a general belief in the power of the word. When he discovers a corner of the town where the story tellers gather a large following around them, and the writers sit stoically, waiting for people to service with their pen, he is profoundly humbled. His mistrust in language, in words, well-funded though it may be, appears to make him a coward, compared to these people who throw their words into the air, or rather: their voices. His emigrant’s voice, filtered through several layers of language, is hidden, artificial, his tongue divulges its truths only with care, bit by bit, as evidenced by the temporal distance between the journey and the publication of this highly artificial book, which, as the title also tells us, is an account after a journey. Not of, not during, no, after. As if he needed the time to render the unspoken, unspeakable, into literature.

Fear certainly plays a role in this. The two central chapters are not about Marrakesh proper, they are about the Jewish community in the city, in the mellah. Canetti is astonished by the fact that Marrakesh is a Jewish melting pot, where Jews from all nations live, peacefully, side by side. The mellah, the Jewish quarter, is a colorful, rich island of Jewishness in a Muslim country. One of the most powerful descriptions in the book is in the first of the two chapters handling the mellah. Canetti describes the Jews he sees sitting by the road and describes how they all watch foreigners, unobtrusively, carefully. The merchants among them possibly in the hope of finding customers, but that is not the main reason, Canetti decides. These people are afraid, their whole existence is governed by the need to be careful, to live in a way that doesn’t challenge the natives and keeps them safe. This story is one that we have heard many times over, by Jews from all over the world. Fear is all over the map, in Die Stimmen von Marrakesh, Canetti’s account of that town at a certain, pivotal point in its history, but it is a way of life in the mellah. Is the publication, in 1967, at an important point in the history of modern Israel, when its Arabic neighbors attacked the young Jewish state for the second time in a few years, accidental? Canetti describes the pride and happiness of Marrakesh’s jews not for being respected and/or equals but for not being persecuted. The fear, the care, that the Jews along the street in the mellah manifest, is something that marked Jews all around the world.

In the end, their fear and their beliefs (well-known to Canetti as they are) and the other citizens’ beliefs, alien and beguiling, full of a confidence that Canetti can only envy them, all these are equally important to the construction of this marvelous book. It turns out that the hunger and appetite behind it, and the unspeakable things Canetti found, were in need of the precision and poetical prowess that Canetti brought to his travel accounts. Although I did not want this book to end, it appears to be in such a perfect equilibrium, that I could not wish it to be any longer. It’s perfect. Read it.

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3 thoughts on “Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh

  1. Pingback: Recently finished books? - Page 42 - World Literature Forum

  2. Pingback: Elias Canetti: The Voices of Marrakesh - World Literature Forum

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