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A Times Literary Supplement review of the Catalan original of Najat El Hachmi's novel 'L'últim patriarca'

The Catalan literary world is still reeling from the jolt it received earlier this year when the Ramon Llull Prize - the most prestigious of all Catalan-language fiction awards - was granted to Najat El Hachmi, a twenty-eight-year-old Moroccan-born woman, who had only begun writing fiction in Catalan in her teens. At first, to her disgust (she considers herself as Catalan as the next citizen), an enormous media meal was made of what were referred to as her immigrant origins. Slowly, however, attention shifted from the supposedly anomalous nature of the author to her novel itself,L’últim patriarca (The Last Patriarch).
It is divided into two sections of equal length. In the first, the (never named) protagonist describes the formation and upbringing of her father, Mimoun Driouch, in a (never specified) Berber-speaking region of Morocco. Keeping her narrative distance by means of an ironic commentary written in a skilfully quasi-oral style, the narrator goes on to describe how her father leaves his home in North Africa for a small Catalan town, finds work and a lover there, and, having been pressured by his daughter - “Why don’t you leave that Christian whore and take care of us for a change?”, she tells him on the phone - finally decides to allow his wife and children to come and live with him in Catalonia.
The ostensibly detached panoramic chronicle of Part One is replaced in Part Two by the literary equivalent of a permanent close-up. Here, the daughter places herself in the narrative limelight in order to reveal the true nature of her father, who turns out to be a jealous paranoiac who has convinced himself, against all evidence, that his wife has been unfaithful to him back in Morocco and that his once beloved daughter is nothing but a potential prostitute.
If the first part is a fine, wry look at a man and his background which minces no words when describing his personal hardships (it is suggested, for example, that when still a teenager, Mimoun was raped by an uncle), the second part dunks the reader into the claustrophobic horror of life with this would-be patriarch, who nearly stabs his wife, beats up his daughter in public, and does his best to control every detail of their lives.
This second half of L'últim patriarca is a tour de force: a graphic account of a young woman’s coming of age in a Catalan rural town, with references as diverse as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Super Mario, Zadie Smith, the Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda and Erich Fromm floating through her emergent cultural universe as she tries to cope all the time with her unhinged father. The fact that El Hachmi describes her main character's plight in individualistic rather than collective terms - thus sidestepping the clichés that occasionally dog what some universities have dubbed Immigrant Lit - allows her to evoke emotions in the reader that have no ethnic strings attached, right through to the denouement.

- Textos i contingut: Matthew Tree - Disseny i programació: Nac -