Read an extract from
The Country of Others
by Leila Slimani
Two nations at war. Two cultures in conflict.
One couple caught in the crossfire. One woman torn apart.
The Country of Others is the new paperback from Leila Slimani, bestselling author of Lullaby and Adele, and is the first volume of a dazzling new trilogy telling the saga of one French family between 1946 and 2016. Powerful and perceptive, this is one of the most compelling and evocative novels you will read this year, and here you can exclusively read the opening chapter
The first time Mathilde visited the farm, she thought: It’s too remote. The isolation made her anxious. He didn’t have a car back then, in 1947, so they crossed the fifteen miles from Meknes on an old cart, driven by a Gypsy. Amine paid no attention to the discomfort of the wooden bench, nor to the dust that made his wife cough. He had eyes only for the landscape. He was eager to reach the estate that his father had left him.
In 1935, after years spent working as a translator in the colonial army, Kadour Belhaj had purchased these hectares of stony ground. He’d told his son how he hoped to turn it into a flourishing farm that would feed generations of Belhaj children. Amine remembered his father’s gaze, his unwavering voice as he described his plans for the farm. Acres of vines, he’d explained, and whole hectares given over to cereals. They would build a house on the sunniest part of the hill, surrounded by fruit trees. The driveway would be lined with almond trees. Kadour was proud that this land would one day belong to his son. ‘Our land!’ He uttered these words not in the way of nationalists or colonists – in the name of moral principles or an ideal – but simply as a landowner who was happy to own land. Old Belhaj wanted to be buried here, he wanted his children to be buried here; he wanted this land to nurture him and to be his last resting place. But he died in 1939, while his son was training with the Spahi Regiment, proudly wearing the burnous and the sirwal. Before leaving for the front, Amine – the eldest son, and now the head of the family – rented the land to a Frenchman born in Algeria.
When Mathilde asked what he had died of, this father-in-law she’d never met, Amine touched his belly and silently nodded. Later, Mathilde found out what had happened. After returning from Verdun, Kadour Belhaj suffered with chronic stomach pains that no Moroccan healer or European doctor was able to allay. So this man, who boasted of his love of reason, his education, his talent for foreign languages, dragged himself, weighed down by shame and despair, to a basement occupied by a chouafa. The sorceress tried to convince him that he was bewitched, that some powerful enemy was responsible for his suffering. She handed him a sheet of paper folded in four, containing some saffron-yellow powder. That evening he drank the remedy, diluted in water, and he died a few hours later in terrible pain. The family didn’t like to talk about it. They were ashamed of the father’s naivety and of the circumstances of his death, for the venerable officer had emptied his bowels on the patio of the house, his white djellaba soaked with shit.
This day in April 1947, Amine smiled at Mathilde and told the driver to speed up. The Gypsy rubbed his dirty bare feet together and whipped the mule even harder. Mathilde flinched. The man’s violence towards the animal revolted her. He clicked his tongue – ‘Ra!’ – and brought the lash down on the mule’s skeletal rump. It was spring and Mathilde was two months pregnant. The fields were covered in marigolds, mallows and starflowers. A cool breeze shook the sunflowers. On both sides of the road they saw the houses of French colonists, who had been here for twenty or thirty years and whose plantations stretched gently down to the horizon. Most of them had come from Algeria and the authorities had granted them the best and biggest plots of land. Reaching out with one hand while using the other as a visor to shield his eyes from the midday sun, Amine contemplated the vast expanse. Then he pointed to a line of cypresses that encircled the estate of Roger Mariani, who’d made his fortune as a winemaker and pig farmer. From the road they couldn’t see the house, or even the acres of vines, but Mathilde had no difficulty imagining the wealth of this farmer, a wealth that filled her with hope for her own future. The serenely beautiful landscape reminded her of an engraving hung above the piano at her music teacher’s house in Mulhouse. She remembered this man telling her: ‘It’s in Tuscany, mademoiselle. Perhaps one day you will go to Italy.’
The mule came to a halt and started eating the grass that grew by the side of the road. The animal had no intention of climbing the slope that faced them, strewn with large white stones. The driver stood up in a fury and began showering the mule with insults and lashes. Mathilde felt tears well behind her eyelids. Trying to hold them back, she pressed herself against her husband, who was irritated by her sensitivity.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ Amine said.
‘Tell him to stop hitting that poor mule.’
Mathilde put her hand on the Gypsy’s shoulder and looked at him, like a child seeking to appease an angry parent. But the driver grew even more violent. He spat on the ground, raised his arm and said: ‘You want a good whipping too?’
The mood changed and so did the landscape. They came to the top of a shabby-looking hill. No flowers here, no cypresses, only a few stunted olive trees surviving amid the rocks and stones. The hill appeared hostile to life. We’re not in Tuscany any more, thought Mathilde. This was more like the Wild West. They got off the cart and walked to a small, charmless little building with a corrugated-iron roof. It wasn’t a house, just a series of small, dark, damp rooms. There was only one window, located high up to prevent vermin getting in, and it let through the barest hint of daylight. On the walls, Mathilde noticed large greenish stains caused by the recent rains. The former tenant had lived alone; his wife had gone back to live in Nîmes after losing a child, and he’d never bothered making the house more attractive. It was not a family home. Despite the warmth of the air, Mathilde felt chilled. When Amine told her his plans she was filled with anxiety.
Leila Slimani is the first Moroccan woman to win France's most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, which she won for Lullaby. A journalist and frequent commentator on women's and human rights, she is French president Emmanuel Macron's personal representative for the promotion of the French language and culture. Born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1981, she lives in Paris with her French husband and their two young children.
Author Photo © Catherine Helie