In the opening pages of her 2012 novel, ‘The Forgiven’, a glamorous British couple arrive by sea in the Moroccan port city of Tangier. Osborne describes how “the mountains had a hushed greenery that made you want to reach out and touch them. The Pillars of Hercules had stood near here, where the Atlantic rushes into the Mediterranean. There are places that are meant to look like doors. One cannot avoid the feeling of being sucked through a portal.
It’s a recreated arrival on location in John Michael McDonagh’s new film adaptation that recently opened in theaters. As the Moroccan coast appears, an immaculately dressed Ralph Fiennes gazes out over the hilly landscape and says to his American wife, played by Jessica Chastain, “Africa.” She briefly looks up from her paperback novel, cynically resigned to the journey through Muslim lands to follow. The disturbing score swells as the camera slides from the Atlantic towards the hills of Tangier.
Osborne is a longtime observer and novelist of portals. His seven works of fiction since 2012 tell stories of contemporary American and European wanderers in Thailand, Cambodia, Greece and Morocco, among others. The recurring focus on expatriates and foreign landscapes has drawn comparisons to Graham Greene and Paul Bowles, but Osborne’s subject is not the post-war period; it is the post-9/11 globalized present.
In “The Forgiven” film and novel, the posh central couple played by Chastain and Fiennes accidentally kill a Moroccan boy on the desert route to a debauched international party. They take the corpse with them as the pool party continues – until the boy’s Bedouin father arrives to collect his son and demand repentance. In the ensuing clash of civilizations, there are racist, classist insults, homophobic and sexist asides, and violence. McDonagh tells me he pursued the rights to the novel because he liked its ethical ambivalence and Osborne’s refreshing lack of moralizing. “Lawrence has no problem creating entire books about unlikable characters. You have to make up your own mind about his characters.
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In the case of “The Forgiven,” I was blown away by its straightforward and provocative portrayal of how its Western and Moroccan characters collide. The grim tone and acid dialogue are squarely out of step with hopeful – and perhaps more acceptable – contemporary ideals of cross-cultural understanding.
For a writer as insightful and sensitive as Osborne, this is entirely intentional. “That’s how people talk, from all sides and everywhere,” he said on Zoom from his home in Bangkok. “Most human speech is pretty blunt most of the time, except when we’re in a polite middle-class world and people are walking on eggshells. But behind closed doors, when people are with their tribe, the brutality returns.Osborne makes no apologies for his stance and says the rise of a cautious, self-censored approach to writing “the Other” is creating stories that are not only less honest, but less interesting. “When someone censors themselves, you know they’re doing it. I think readers want something unpolished, something just rawer, even if it’s meaner.”
Prior to publishing “The Forgiven,” Osborne spent two decades working as a travel writer in New York City, covering the borderless, hyperconnected, golden new world that globalization had created. But he says his mission has always been to turn his full-time attention to novelizing the complicated reality of the nations he experienced on the ground.
He says what originally drew him to foreign correspondence and travel writing still holds – a deep love of place. But as he lost his patience to follow the zeitgeist of Asia or the Middle East for the tourism industrial complex, in a new form, he found a way to convey the layers of history and identity that make places and people vibrate. “This is what gives meaning to human life, that we do not forget the past and that the dead are present among the living.”
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Foreign places, in his fiction, are as slippery and prone to contradictions as the unlikable characters who inhabit them. These are not winding, nostalgic wanderlust stories, but well-plotted, propulsive romances in which someone finds themselves far further afield and dislocated than they ever imagined. “It taps into that existentialist idea that underpins so much of Lawrence’s work — that you can’t escape your own nature,” McDonagh says. “When you look at his characters, they’re either running from something or seeking oblivion in a foreign place.”
To render these journeys, Osborne’s writing basks in elsewheres – filled with poetic descriptions that evoke shifts in wind patterns, shadows on Mediterranean waves, light sliding across desert sands. The grandeur of these settings is deliciously juxtaposed with the madness and darkness of its characters. With what he sees as contemporary American and British fiction’s fixation on interiority and private dramas, the outside world and the way it shapes character is gone. It is this emphasis on foreign places as characters that makes his work inherently cinematic.
“The Forgiven” is the first of several screen adaptations of Osborne’s writing currently in production. It was shot entirely on location in Morocco despite the coronavirus pandemic closures and retains the thematic breadth of the novel. Osborne has been careful to choose cinematic collaborators who won’t sand its edges for easy consumption and despite its star cast, it’s an independent and distinctive film. In McDonagh, whose filmography includes “Cavalary” and “The Guard,” Osborne says he finally found a filmmaker whose satirical, brash comedic sensibility could retain the unsettling essence of “The Forgiven” in translation.
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Osborne’s latest novel about expat boredom, “On Java Road,” is also out this summer. It is the story of a fading friendship between an Englishman and a Hongkonger that unfolds during the brutal 2019 Chinese crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the once British-ruled city-state. I read this last epic of expatriation because I was in the process of repatriating myself.
My journey back to the United States after almost three years of living in the Persian Gulf generated a kind of constant internal shift – abruptly shifting from lamenting the political crises here at home to the very real pleasures of coming home. I wonder if I am changed by the years spent abroad or simply more unmoored.
Traveling internationally has never been easier, but with airports crushed by ‘revenge travel’ and resource wars, is it even worth going elsewhere? It is precisely this kind of fast travel that Osborne says has ruined what travel can provide at its highest form – a genuine sense of dislocation and expansion. In the growing imprint of what he considers “Planet Tourism”, his novels have become his radical rethinking of travel writing – as sensual, provocative and fascinating portraits of lives and places in motion.
Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, and Newsweek, as well as NPR.
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