The Death of Murat Idrissi

The death of Murat Idrissi is central to Tommy Wieringa’s Man Booker International Prize listed novel The Death of Murat Idrissi (translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett), but Murat Idrissi himself is not. Instead Wieringa tells the story of Moroccan immigrants from the point of view of second generation, Dutch passport-holding Ilham. Murat is largely silent, out of sight, and, eventually, nothing but an awkward encumbrance to be disposed of: in other words, a representation of Western attitudes to those who attempt to cross from Africa to Europe.

Ilham, and her friend Thouraya, agree to smuggle Murat from Morocco to Spain in the boot of their rented car. They are pressured into doing this by their new friend, Saleh, who claims cars are never checked, by the poverty of Murat’s family, and by Murat’s mother, who claims she will kill herself if they do not take him. They are also offered money.

Ilham’s trip to Morocco appears ill-fated from the start, when a minor car accident deprives them of much of their money. This is one reason they befriend Saleh, who, like them, benefits from a European passport, another being the protection afforded by a male escort as “women in Morocco rarely travel alone”:

“He kept the boys at bay. At bakers’ stands in the Casbah they had seen hornets teaming over the sugar-coated croissant; that’s how it was with the boys, too.”

Though Alham’s parents are Moroccan, she feels alienated from the country:

“She couldn’t stand the poverty, the heat, and the dust. It exhausted her. There was compassion in her, but beneath the surface also the conviction that poor people had only themselves to blame for living like this.”

This attitude she applies to her own father, comparing him to his brother:

“Life beat them down. Her uncle rose to his feet again, her father remained lying; he was the weaker of the two.”

Looking out at the Moroccan landscape she thinks, “It’s the world of her mother, a world she can’t accept.” However, she is equally aware that neither is she regarded as Dutch, particularly after 9/11:

“Then two planes drilled themselves into the heart of the Western world… She watched as the little opportunity, the crack that had posed a possibility, sealed over.”

Later she tells us that the only Dutch people she sees are at the call centre where she works, and when the two women are back in Europe it is a group of men of North African extraction which Thouraya seeks to attach herself to. Alham recognises in one the determination to assimilate:

“Suddenly she got it. His mimicry. The hard work – how he had become a perfectly assimilated migrant’s son. He would beat them at their own game and be Dutcher than the Dutch.”

In this way Wieringa, in a slim novel, covers a range of immigrant experience, highlighting that immigrants are not one homogenous group, or all on the same ‘side’. It’s a novel remarkably free of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters, with all displaying elements of selfishness, from Saleh’s failure to check on Murat during the ferry crossing, to Thouraya’s sexual needs.

This is the first time I have read Wieringa and he reminded me a little of Peter Stamm, another writer where ordinary, almost banal characters, have their lives interrupted by something extraordinary. As Alham asks at one point:

“Could this really be them, whose lives have turned into a nightmare at the snap of a finger?”

Murat’s fate, as revealed in the title, provides the kind of tension one would normally associate with a thriller, but Wieringa is not interested in melodrama. Alhama’s emotions tend to be fleeting and superficial; nothing, apparently, touches her deeply.

The Death of Murat Idrissi is a sly, subtle – one might even say cagey – novel. A simple story which refuses to simplify the issues it raises, it’s difficult not to read it as a commentary on Western indifference disguised in such a way as to make blaming others (as its characters frequently do) the easiest way out.

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7 Responses to “The Death of Murat Idrissi”

  1. roughghosts Says:

    I love the cover of this book. I’m pleasantly surprised to see a number of interesting looking new-to-me titles on the Man Booker International list. Like this.

  2. Scott Says:

    I read this book a few months ago and, although I thought it was riveting, I was surprised to see it on the longlist. You nailed it using the word “cagey” in your review – perfect description! But don’t you think this novel may compete with the other “road trip” novel, The Remainder? Can’t see both making the shortlist.

  3. Man Booker International Prize 2019 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands), translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe) […]

  4. Scott Says:

    I read this again recently and liked it more, although I still appreciate the writing more than I sympathize with the characters (except for Murat). I’m eight books in too and am now reading my ninth: The Pine Islands – fascinating and bizarre but plot-driven and refreshing – and yet, another road trip novel!

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