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Murder Slim Review: THE LEMON

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I first read Mrabet in his Black Sparrow Press release HARMLESS POISONS BLAMELESS SINS. True to form with Black Sparrow, as a non-Fante or Bukowski book, it was lousy. And isn't John Martin annoying in how he still keeps digging up "new" Bukowski poems? Stuff Bukowski had under the sink. Stuff he'd used to correct a table with one leg shorter than the other. Poems jammed in the wastepaper bin. Bukowski hadn't used them because they weren't good enough. Wasn't the million dollar payoff from Harper Collins for the Bukowski/Fante rights enough for Martin?

Anyway, HARMLESS POISONS is a short story collection about a bone-headed hero and his mythical adventures. The stories either had morals or humour, but throughout they came across as simplistic and trite. THE LEMON maintains the simplicity - at least in its expression - but works beautifully. Unsurprisingly, THE LEMON wasn't published on Black Sparrow Press, but on City Lights... the publisher of the short stories (NOTES OF A DIRTY OLD MAN, THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN IN THE WORLD etc.) that John Martin deemed unfit to print.

THE LEMON is about a twelve-year-old called Abdeslam, and it's set in Morocco. Abdeslam runs away from home due to a dictatorial father, and is intent of finding his own way in life. Abdeslam hooks up with a drunk - rare in a Muslim country - called Bachir. Bachir is a fascinating bad guy... at once sleazy and possibly paedophilic and at other times humorous, spouting insults like "I SHIT ON YOUR MOTHER!".

The Lemon

Abdeslam is also nicely fleshed out. He starts of being sympathetic due to his age, but does a good job of making you reconsider that. He's only seldom vulnerable, but often selfish and arrogant... the truth of most twelve-year-olds. He becomes increasingly engrossed in the Koran, and often gives Bachir as good as he gets... saying that Bachir's actions are a crime against Allah. The Moroccan/Islamic background is rich in the book, with some great evocations of kif-smoking cafes and grimy streets. The one character who seems the most wise and good is a prostitute Aouicha, who tries to educate and protect Abdeslam on the real ways of the world. But she's as trapped as Abdeslam is - both by her job and her misguided love for Bachir.

The language - and it's all been translated by Paul Bowles from Mrabet's oral stories - is childlike again in its simplicity but this really works in THE LEMON. Perhaps because the main character is twelve-years-old, it seems to perfectly capture his view of the world. And, unlike HARMLESS POISONS, we also have a full novel that draws you in through its storyline. Will Abdeslam survive? Will Bachir gets his comeuppance?

I did spend much of the book wondering why the hell it was called THE LEMON, though. I was constantly fascinated by the story, but the question did keep nagging away. I figured it was some kind of complicated metaphor... something about life being sour. Well, as with the style of the book, the truth is far more literal and satisfying. Stay with the novel until the end, and you'll find the most innovative use of a lemon you've ever heard of.

One final note, THE LEMON is hard to find and can sell for stupidly inflated prices. Definitely pick it up if you can get it for less than a tenner, because there doesn't seem much hope of it being reprinted. We looked into publishing the book on Murder Slim Press, but hit two brick walls because Paul Bowles is dead and we can't speak Arabic. Mohammed Mrabet is still alive and he's an artist now... so if you know him, please drop us a line.

Review by Steve Hussy