The Riffian

by Carleton S. Coon
[Atlantic Monthly Press and Little, Brown, $2.00]
THE author of The Riffian is by the power of his right hand an anthropologist, and only with his left hand a novelist. His right hand knows all the time what his left hand is doing, and by this collaboration we are given a novel of French North Africa that has the salt of real blood in it.
Ali the Jackal, lightly begotten son of a great stealer of rifles, was taken from his mother’s brothel by his father’s kin, and, being brought up in exile, looked toward his father’s native valley with a passionate loyalty. He fought against the Germans in a French Colonial regiment, and returned with a servant’s-eye view of the French. He fell wildly in love with a girl of his mother’s people, who followed his mother’s trade, and was condemned to penal servitude for killing an Arab whom he found with her. Escaping from the convict gang, he fell into the hands of a tribe somewhat related to his own, but with different ideas about women. When at last he escaped again, he found his father’s clan hard pressed by the ever-advancing French, and became a leader of the bitter, impoverished, but still implacable warriors who were all that remained of the free, proud mountaineers of the Rif.
The men and maidens of the book are not lay figures of romantic sheiks or harem beauties whose virginity is miraculously kept intact until the last gasp and the last page. They are living people of the wild fastnesses of North Africa, in the mountains of the Rif and the Atlas — the same people who bred Abd el Krim and drove out the Spaniards with slaughter. They are in part the remnant of an ancient white race; they despise the Negro, hate the Arab, and loathe the Spaniard and the Frenchman, saying fiercely that it is ‘better to be a dog of the Ait Atta than Sultan under the French.’
Carleton Coon writes with a sure touch of the romantic and picturesque tribes among whom he and his wife have lived and traveled (he is already the author of a book on the Tribes of the Rif). There are vivid and unforced descriptions of the city of Fez, with its Arab, Jewish, and European quarters. He is not so convincing when he comes to the French; he has become so absorbed in the tribal point of view that he is rather naïve. Still, it would be a good thing if he, as an anthropologist, were to bite a few novelists. We might get a general improvement in stories about ’natives.‘