Book Review: Gertrude January 05, 2015 14:00

By Hassan Najmi, trans. by Roger Allen, Interlink Books, 2014, paperback, 282 pp. 

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Reviewed by Andrew Stimson

The provocative Moroccan poet, journalist and translator Hassan Najmi has written an absorbing, speculative tale of Gertrude Stein’s real-life visit to Tangier. The book’s narrator, a poet and journalist from modern-day Morocco named Abu Hasan, relates the deathbed confessions of Muhammad, who claims to have had an affair with Gertrude Stein in his youth. Using a narrative style that veers between emotive poetry and understated minimalism, Abu Hasan describes Muhammad’s burgeoning affair with Stein in Tangier. The young Muhammad follows the famous author to her Paris salon, where he mingles with the likes of Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Erik Satie, Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray and other luminaries of the age. However, his passionate relationship with Stein creates turmoil with Stein’s longtime partner, Alice B. Toklas. Moreover, Stein’s formidable artistic talent stifles Muhammad, and he becomes an invisible figure, artistically unproductive and reluctant to comment on the art he admires.

Meanwhile, in contemporary Rabat, Hasan develops an obsession with Stein while writing Muhammad’s posthumous memoir and recruits an American diplomat, Lydia Altman, to help his research. The two soon become lovers, and the arc of their affair mirrors Muhammad’s doomed relationship with Stein.

The dissolution of Muhammad and Abu Hasan’s relationships uncovers the anger and pain seething just beneath the surface—the pain of unrealized artistic talent and ambition. An implicit conflict in the novel is the troubling inequalities as Western artists work at the core of high society and culture, while their colonial (and post-colonial) peers struggle at the periphery. Gertrude is a fascinating exploration of the pitfalls of artistic pursuit as well as the tempestuous lives of expatriate artists living in Morocco and Paris during the 1920s and ’30s. Punctuated by wit, humor and longing, Najmi’s work is an ideal read for students of contemporary literature and those interested in Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation.”