Un homme, seul sur un banc public, se laisse mourir sous un manteau de neige. Ses souvenirs resurgissent. Son enfance marocaine, les premiers temps de son arrivée en France, l’isolement physique et spirituel inhérent à sa condition d’artiste peintre immigré. L’histoire d’Ilias-fils-d’Aïcha prend un sens à mesure que la vie s’échappe de son corps transi.
Comme du bout de son pinceau, le narrateur met en mots la fresque vivante et colorée d’une existence jalonnée de rencontres. Tour à tour monologue intérieur et conversation avec Priméra - la petite chatte famélique, unique confidente des années de galère -, ce roman met en perspective une aventure profondément humaine, à la croisée de plusieurs cultures et de plusieurs chemins. La neige, froide et immaculée, se substitue lentement aux ombres dans un monde étrange et fuyant, mais qui promet chaleur et amour.


Terre d’ombre brûlée

1971  Jilali Gharbaaoui froze to death on a public bench in Paris. Widely considered to be one of the founders of avant-garde painting in Morocco, Gharbaoui died alone and in relative obscurity at age forty-one. While he was known to suffer from substance abuse and debilitating depression throughout his life, little of Gharbaoui’s biography can be pinned down with certainty.

Mahi Binebine, himself a well-known Moroccan painter, has said in interviews that his sixth novel, Terre d’ombre brûlée, was inspired by the shadowy life of Jilali Gharbaoui. Terre d’ombre brûlée opens as a painter émigré, Ilias, sits on a Parisian bench in Clichy freezing to death. “Comment en suis-je arrivé là?” Ilias wonders as he slowly loses  consciousness in the cold. From this haunting present, Ilias plunges into his past, narrating—like the abandoned protagonists in other Binebine novels—the tragic events that led him to personal catastrophe. In the process, Binebine not only depicts the alienated and precarious life of a Maghrebi painter teetering on the edge in Paris but also provides the mysterious Gharbaoui with a fictional autobiography.

From the opening chapter, the first-person narrative of an increasingly delusional Ilias is repeatedly interrupted by his bitter memories of life in Paris and his painful childhood growing up as an orphan in the old city of Marrakech. After years of poverty and obscurity shared with a cast of similar characters, a visit from a representative of one of the famous Parisian galleries offers Ilias a sudden sense of hope. Just as the illegal immigrants in Binebine’s Cannibals imagine Europe as a paradise that will wipe out a lifetime of suffering, Ilias immediately begins to fantasize about the magnificent success that is sure to follow his opening at the famous gallery. After months of waiting, however, Ilias receives a rejection letter from the gallery; he is soon evicted from his studio and plunges into a deep depression. Forced to relocate to Clichy, Ilias’s physical and mental health quickly deteriorate to the point that he meets his end in the freezing cold.

As in Binebine’s other novels, Terre d’ombre brûlée begins after the narrator’s fate is sealed. Abandoned by everyone around him, all that is left for Ilias is to retell his past. Still, by providing a personal and compassionate history for abandoned anonymous characters like Ilias, Binebine shows in Terre d’ombre brûlée that his protagonists are able to transcend their brutal destinies. Indeed, it

is Binebine’s stunning ability to depict his characters’ tragic lives and crushed dreams in a humane way that makes him a masterful storyteller.

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