Lulu in Marrakech

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Diane Johnson’s Lulu in Marrakech is the first-person story of Lulu Sawyer, a newly recruited intelligence operative who is sent to Morocco to investigate how money given to charities there ends up in the hands of Islamic extremists elsewhere. Her sojourn in Marrakech is only her second espionage assignment in the organization, so she is, in effect, learning to be a spy on the job. The novel, however, does not always follow the typical trajectory of a spy thriller. Though Lulu does suggest that she knows how to wiretap rooms and make impressions of keys, her mission requires her to observe the people in her surroundings and send reports of their behavior back to her superiorshuman intelligence, as she refers to it. Lulu does not fit the stereotype of an intelligence operative. Rather, Johnson depicts her as equal parts spy and romance novel heroinepart of her cover story for visiting Morocco is to stay with her lover, Ian Drumm, a man she had met and had begun a relationship with during her previous mission. Lulu also symbolizes the American abroad, thrown in with an unusual mixture of Europeans, Middle Easterners, and locals in Morocco. Though the novel works well as a story exploring cultural differences or as a spy text, Johnson’s intermix of these two genres creates some problematic plot and character developments that diminish the novel’s effectiveness.

Several of Johnson’s previous works explore the ramifications of this combining of different lifestyles and mores in close quarters, most notably her 1987 Pulitzer Prize-nominated Persian Nights and her French trilogyL’Affaire (2003), Le Divorce (1997), and Le Mariage (2000). In all four of these novels, Johnson juxtaposes a slightly adrift American abroad with the more understated and subtle culture of France, in the French trilogy, and of Iran, in Persian Nights. Typically, the American character misreads cultural signs and symbols, is frequently criticized for her American qualities, but eventually learns to appreciate the foreign culture, eventually valuing her Americanisms and the new aspects of her personality brought to life by immersion in the foreign climate.

Lulu in Marrakech follows many of these same patterns, as Lulu settles into the Moroccan lifestyle. There, she must navigate through many different groups: the visiting French and English with their summer homes in Marrakech, the Algerian refugees, the Islamic cooks, the Islamic Americans, and the runaway Saudis. The cultural melting pot allows Lulu a look into several cultures, but, unlike Johnson’s previous narrators who seem to gain in understanding the foreign culture, Lulu never seems to come to terms with the Moroccan way of life. The odd mixing of cultures in Marrakech highlights its diversity, but in the context of the novel, it creates a cultural confusion that Lulu never quite masters.

As in Persian Nights, Johnson also tackles tough political issues, though the political climate of Lulu in Marrakech is a bit more extreme. Lulu becomes involved in the rendition and torture of a perceived Islamic extremist, and this highlights the most pressing concern of the novel: the general fear that the moderate Islamic culture’s resistance to Islamic extremists is corroding. Thus, everyone is considered suspicious and a potential terrorist. Johnson seems to ask: How does an intelligence operative infiltrate such an environment? Though Persian Nights looks at the naïveté of Chloe Fowler, an American visiting a foreign culture and not really understanding the inherent danger, Lulu examines the culture of Marrakech from the opposite extreme. Whereas the narrator in Persian Nights cannot imagine men shooting at a crowd in a tourist area and believes that Americans and other foreigners in Iran will be safe because they are not natives, in Marrakech, no one is that naïve, particularly in the post-9/11 world of the novel. Though Lulu acknowledges many of the potential dangers in the area, she ignores the possibilities that her lover might be involved in...

(The entire section is 1680 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

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Elle 24, no. 3 (November, 2008): 242.

Entertainment Weekly, October 3, 2008, p. 79.

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