The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun recounts the miseries of one mismatched couple. The painter, as he is most commonly referred to, is educated, celebrated, old(er), and moneyed. Amina is young, beautiful, born of immigrants, less educated, and obscure. Readers meet them, however, at a point when power has shifted—at least temporarily, possibly forever. What now?
The painter has suffered a stroke. The stroke reduces him to physical dependency on others–noticeably not his wife—and gives him time to reflect on his life.
It is no mistake that the main character is a painter. He takes (or rather, he took) what he sees and puts it to canvas the way he wants it to be seen. And in that way, aren’t we all artists of our internal landscapes, projecting externally what we want others to see?
Unfortunately, life isn’t like that. Sometimes what we want others to see based on what we put forward is wholly unlike what actually is. Life is less contained, less abstract, and less in our own control than the art we would create.
Journal-like entries that move between the painter’s present situation and the decades leading up to his stroke tell his side of their marriage. The painter writes through the lens of a narrator, perhaps in an attempt at projecting objectivity, but it is nevertheless a passive voice of reflection and resignation. Then Amina recounts her side. Her chapters are written from the first-person perspective. They are unapologetic, bold, and calculating.
Sex is his issue; money is hers. Except that is too simple. Marriage creates a world of complexity and interconnection unique to human relationships. And through these pages we see how snarled those links can become.
By allowing both sides to tell their version of events Jelloun creates two parallel stories with the same likelihood of being true. Both perspectives are understandable. Neither trusts the other – and it turns out both have reason. Neither loves the other – their lists make clear all the generalities and specificities of this absence. And this is what tangles the cords: both sides are true. Each individual is bringing his and her perspective to bear on the same marriage. Each side is bringing a list of suspicions, calculations, projections, expectations, and angles to the story that befuddle any hope of finding a singular narrative that could end in a pronouncement of right and wrong.
Society’s pressures are no less under scrutiny in The Happy Marriage than the personal details of the book’s marriage. Ben Jelloun’s sparse details concerning place, the litany of secondary characters who traipse through the pages, wavering ideas around family and marriage and divorce, and the tension around the question of what will happen to the painter, heighten our attention to the myriad forces pressing on one relationship.
Ben Jelloun injects the story at nearly every turn with juxtaposing sentiments: the desire to change and the refusal to do so; the struggle to conform and the fight to be free; the elusiveness of common narrative and the universality of experience; and, the dream of reality in how we aspire to be and the sabotage of happiness by who we really are.
The Happy Marriage unfolds carefully and thoughtfully. And though neither character is particularly likable, it succeeds in developing empathy for their respective situations. It creates a story set in a specific time and place that is likewise recognizable across a spectrum of arenas where public and private life collide.