Is The Forgiven based on a true story?
Yes, though I reworked it to fit my own idea of a story. The characters are mine, and I was very familiar with the landscape in which the story occurs long before I heard the tale that I eventually used. In fact, the original story immediately reminded me of a place where I had spent a lot of time years before. And it seemed probable. It resonated with what I remembered of my own sometimes difficult relations when staying in the Saharathat feeling of not knowing where you are, or not knowing if the surface and depth of other people are aligned or whether they exist in the same context as you do. The Westerner there is always alone and slightly bewildered.
You've been all over the world as a travel writer. Why did you choose Morocco as the setting for your novel?
I had lived there for a while, and I also made a trip into the desert near Erfoud and Rissani to explore fossils. The mountain of Issomour had been so impressive to meI could not stop thinking about it for years. There was a kind of dread about it that was difficult to express. And the villages around it, which I have described (though the names are altered slightly), were always incredibly ominous and strange to me. Even the shapes of the houses, like eggs buried in sand, and the enormous cliff face filled with fossil caves: It seemed like the improbable corner of what we call the world economy. Child labor hacking out trilobites for European millionaires. Of course, I wanted to write about our updated version of the colonial relation, though the word colonial is simplistic. I wanted that as a backdrop to my morality fable. One of my heroes is the French filmmaker Clouzot, and The Wages of Fear was very much an inspiration for me in writing this book. You might remember that that film was set in a place very like Erfoud, though of course in Latin America.
The Forgiven features an incredible cast of charactersdifferent ages, nationalities, social classes. Are any of the characters based on real people you've met during your travels?
Most if not all are based directly on people I have known. That doesn't mean I met them in Morocco! Though some of them I did. I met quite a few fossil dealers in Erfoud and in the Tafilalet region, and also quite a few foreign desperadoes of various kinds. Some of the other characters are very familiar to me from my English and French upbringing, and indeed from my own familyso they are types I know very well from childhood. I didn't have to invent them very muchtheir way of speaking and thinking is very clear to me and so, too, is their psychology, which is nevertheless quite complex and too easy to caricature. They all found their way into the characters of The Forgiven. To me, place creates character, not the other way around. So the settingthe placetwists and reshapes the characters into a certain form...that I suppose is the whole point of the story. In the Sahara, you are not the person you were in South Kensington.
What's next for you?
I am working now on a collection of short stories set in far-flung places where I have lived and traveled, exploring themes that are quite similar to those in The Forgiven. I am fascinated, I suppose, by the western intrusion into the Tropics, into the deserts and the jungles of those places that they think to be wild. It is not a new theme, but I think it continues in our own age in different forms. I am, I daresay, attracted to the same things in my own life, and therein lies a personal neurosis that I like to explore in objective characters.
An Essay by Lawrence Osborne
Off the Grid: Morocco Beyond Marrakech
Although well traveled by tourists, Morocco remains a country where secret places abound. The desert is vast, as are the Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains, and here, far from the cities and cultural centers, one can find places removed from the camera-wielding crowds. Admittedly, many Berber desert towns are popular with tourists; they're reached via the modern-day equivalent to the camel: the air-conditioned bus. But travelers equipped with their own four-wheel drive can move beyond the more traversed watering holes. The deep desert beckons.
The road that leads to the desert town of Erfoud passes through the Rif Mountains before descending toward Errachidia, a former Foreign Legion outpost that sits on the edge of the desert plain. It passes through the gritty fossil-selling town of Midelt and then on to the remarkable Gorges du Ziz, the road spiraling down among abandoned ksours (fortified Berber villages).
Erfoud has become something of a destination in recent years due to its proximity to the magnificent sand dunes of Merzouga. But it still feels like a frontier town, its economy based on fossilized trilobites and aquifers. From here, you can drive across the open desert to Rissani, a former slave market and now center of the huge oasis around it: the Tafilalet.
Rissani has a tumbledown market and scores of shops selling fossils and gems. Traders from the deep desert show up here, bringing pieces of meteors for sale. It's an interesting stop for a night, but beyond it the roads peter out and a four-wheel drive is necessary to reach the places that are even more remote. There are two enigmatic mountains that reward the adventurous. One is Hmor Lagdad, "the redcheeked one" in Arabic, and the other is Jbel Issomour, a place famous for its prized trilobites, which are sold all over the world.
Insider tip: It is very highly recommended that you make the trip to Jbel Issomour with a guide. The easiest way to do this is to stop in Rissani and find a fossil seller or guide to take you to the various fossil villages around the mountain.
Issomour makes the most rewarding detour, though the journey from Erfoud is arduous and requires an expert guide. It's a plateau mountain that rises from the desert like something not entirely natural. Enhancing the supernatural feel are the miles of fossil trenches around it. Hundreds of people labor in cooler months here, but in summer they depart for the Rif and leave their tools by the sides of the trenches for months at a time, undisturbed by even the wind. The effect is eerie. Circumnavigating the mountain by jeep provides access to a ramplike track that leads up to the topa rough wadi that requires strong tires.
The drive across this plateau is remarkable, since it is roadless, off the grid, and bare. On the far side, another wadi leads down to a series of oases that is dying from the gradual encroachment of Bayoud disease, which afflicts palm trees. At their edge lie tiny hamlets devoted to fossil mining.
Their houses are often shaped like eggs, with metal doors brightly painted with images of trilobites. Visible above, on the looming, almost menacing cliff faces, are the caves where locals hack away for the precious fossils, each one trailing ropes. With a bit of courtesy, it's possible to spend the night with a local and watch the diggers set off at dawn. But by ten, in summer, the heat is unbearable and those not working in the caves will stay indoors.
The drive to and from Issomour is as remarkable as the mountain itself. Along the roads are fossil prepping shops and quarries; the pretty village of Alnif boasts a beautiful bab (gateway). Closer to Erfoud, you will even find unexpected lakes with flamingos. This is the eternal desert, untouched by the mega-resorts now springing up everywhere around Saharan towns.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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