Renowned Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun declares, “Marriage is a declaration of war,” in The Happy Marriage.
The story is recounted by a famous Moroccan artist who is never named but simply refers to himself as “the painter.”
He has suffered a stroke that has left him incapacitated, unable to paint or even to swat a fly that lands on his nose. Two male carers bathe him, feed him and look after his every need.
Debilitated, he can only muse about his life and in particular, his miserable marriage and the events leading up to it.
The painter blames his much younger wife. He says she came from a poor family, was very beautiful and swept his heart away.
Despite opposition from family and friends, because of their vastly different social status, he married her.
After two years of marital bliss, his wife started to lose her temper and insult him. He escaped into the arms of other women, or into fits of rage that precipitated his ill health. A particularly bad altercation brought on the stroke that has left him wheelchair bound.
The painter talks about his happy days and wretched marriage in poetic style, for instance, describing himself as “the man who loved women too much.”
His titles the chapters after famous cities like Paris, Casablanca and Marrakech.
Only a physiotherapist named Imane brings the disabled painter any relief. She is pretty, young and chatty, making him laugh and regaling him with her made-up stories.
Accepting that his wife will never change, the painter decides to divorce her, but she refuses to leave.
In Part Two, we get to hear the wife’s side of the story. Amani comes from the Berber ethnic community and grew up in a “dry, rotten land where nothing grows.” She had little formal education, but is confident and intelligent.
She caught the attention of her Arab husband ,who hailed from a bourgeois city family. They had nothing in common and, despite her misgivings, she married him, believing that he would change.
Amani’s account essentially counters “Foulane’s” story, instigated when she discovers his secret manuscript.
He writes in great detail about their courtship, his artistic journey, numerous liaisons with other women, as well as unkind descriptions of her and little reference to her role in his career success.
The manuscript is a turning point for the long-suffering Amani. Betrayal is the ultimate insult on top her husband’s miserly ways, unloving nature and refusal to defend her against derogatory treatment by his family. She refers to him as Foulane, a contemptuous term meaning “old guy.”
Amani never stopped loving Foulane. Now that her husband is an invalid, she is determined to recover her place in his life like an unwelcome fly that is “gluttonous and stubborn.”
The Happy Marriage is set in modern day Morocco and France, but tradition still reigns in matters of marriage and social class. Modern medicine, sorcery and witchcraft are sought after in equal measure.
The couple are Moroccan but the marital strife outlined by Jelloun is global in nature. I found Amani more honest in her account of matters.
She admits to being hot tempered, nasty, straight-talking, and fearless. Her chapter headings are unflinching such as Money, Sex, Jealousy and Hate.
One is struck by the vastly different perspectives of Foulane and Amani, as though they are living on different planets.
Jelloun, 74, presents enough contradictory views so that the reader has to decide whose side to take. It remains to be seen whether their marriage is retrievable.
The Happy Marriage was short-listed for the Grand Prix of Literary Associations prize in 2016.