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Book Review: Englene fra Frelsens Hær, Abdellah Taïa.

The Moroccan writer Abdellah Taïa will be the first guest of 2016 at Dokk1, on March 2nd. Here you can read about his first novel published in Danish, Englene fra Frelsens Hær (Forlaget Arvids, 2015). Review by Authors in Aarhus volunteer, Emma Svankjær Morel.

Englene fra Frelsens Hær (original title: L’Armée du Salut) is an autobiographical tale of sexuality, literature, writing, life and love. The story is told by the first-person narrator, named Abdellah, and is divided into three sections. It can be described as a novel of development. The three sections are roughly outlined and divided respectively into childhood, adolescence and liberation into adulthood.

The first section takes place in his home town, Salé, where his large family live together in the limited space of their house. The story is about the narrator’s memories of childhood and his relationship with family members. The tone in the first paragraph is tinted with childish naivety. However, there is a pervasive tenderness and intimacy in the descriptions of family relations, which, incidentally, is consistent throughout the novel.

The second section deals with the narrator’s encounter with his sexuality; sparked by his first infatuation. Whilst observing his older brother’s body, Abdellah is faced with jealousy, obsession, and falling in love. The experience with his older brother is the starting point to Abdellah’s own sexual development, but is also responsible for the awakening of his interest in French literature and language.

The final section of the book is about the liberation that occurs when the narrator meets a man who opens up a new world to him- in sexual, intellectual and literary terms. Abdellah falls in love and embarks on a complicated relationship with the man. He later moves to Geneva to complete his studies in literature. Abdellah, removed from the safeness of the room in his family home, has to find his feet in his quest for an adult identity.

When I started reading Englene fra Frelsens Hær, I imagined that the issues implied by the themes of homosexuality, immigration and ethnicity would take up the most space in the novel, given they are tied to the author/narrator’s background. And in a way, they are. But as I read on, I noticed a real linguistic finesse and was stricken by the tenderness and sensuality of the language; and actually in the end, I found it was the most dominant aspect to the book.  When you hear about a Moroccan writer, who is also homosexual, it's easy to imagine that his writing would become some kind of sociocriticism. But I was, to my delight, pleasantly surprised by how much the language, and the very fine and sensitive portrayals in particular, prevailed. So here we have a writer, who has a clear story to tell, a starting point to tell it from, and who also masters a beautiful written language.

Abdellah Taïa is a Moroccan writer, born in 1973, who has lived in France since 1999. Englene fra Frelsens Hær is his first novel that has been translated into Danish. The original title L'Armée du Salut, was published in French in 2006 and was translated into Danish in 2015. Abdellah Taïa is the first Moroccan writer to have publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, and consequently it is a strong theme in his writing.