Welcome to Paradise
Mahi Binebine
Lulu Norman, Translator

(Tin House Books)
The on-the-road novel of a half-century ago has been transformed into the Flee Novel of today: fleeing poverty, fleeing war, fleeing injustice ... looking for nothing more than the freedom to pass, a job and a place to lay one's weary head at night. In Welcome to Paradise, the asylum-seekers are perched on the coast of Morocco, awaiting a boat that in four hours will transport them to Algeçiras in Spain and after that on into Europe and their new life.

Like Giovanni Boccaccio's travelers, each of the characters here has a story to tell. Kacem Judi is running away from a massacre. Yussef had a tragedy that killed his whole family (he stole a sack of corn; it was laced with rat poison); Nuara --- with her squalling baby --- is going to find her missing husband in Paris; Yarcé has just lost his job caring for the old rich plump honkies of Tangier --- and our narrator Aziz had to drop out of school, is running away with his half-wit cousin Reda.

The high points here are the stories, especially Momo's. Momo is the middleman who sets the trafficking in motion, and his tales are some of the most gory: him running from the Paris police, hiding in an apartment of a plump lady who falls over and dies so he cuddles her still-warm body and her cat until the police go away so he can sneak back to the street.

Momo also has a dream of being consumed by his boss at the restaurant, Mr. José who "devours Momo with his greedy bloodshot eyes, scrutinizing the young maître d's frail body as he patrolled his vast, teeming room." Soon Mr. José does begin to devour him bit by bit, toes and fingers at first, then thighs and haunch and arms. In his dream Momo is left at last but as a head on a platter, directing people to their tables with his eyes. In France, the novel was titled, obviously enough, Cannibales

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This is the work of a young writer and I'm not so sure there is much art here. It's your basic run-away-from-poverty-and-despair story and I read it in a couple of hours and was surprised by how unmoving it can be. I generally like hide-from-the-authorities stuff filled with criminals and blackmail artists and payoffs, but Paradise just doesn't cut the mustard.

The writer offers a series of personal vignettes that stir up the juices but still don't touch us. Reda's mother beat his brother's hands so they had to be amputated then she jumped down a well and died there. Nuara appears here in the original man-bites-dog story by doing just that: she gnaws on the leg of a stray until it leaves her and the baby alone ("her mouth was smeared with blood.") Most of those who we meet here end up drowned, but we are not touched. Binebine can tell a story, knows pacing, can add the appropriate fizz to tales of horror, but we need is more heart, lots and lots of heart.

--- C. A. Amantea
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