The Forgiven author Laurence Osborne talks about his novels


In conventional literary travel accounts of Westerners moving East – to India, China or Arabia, for example – there is a tendency towards serious upliftment, redemption and deepening of the expat’s soul through travel. Eat, pray, love, etc. Lawrence Osborne’s novels ask the opposite question. What if it’s the less sympathetic, demeaning, and discriminating layers of self that come to the fore in expatriation?

In the opening pages of his 2012 best-selling novel The Forgiven, a glamorous British couple arrive by sea in the Moroccan port city of Tangier. Osborne describes how “the mountains had a felty green that made you want to reach out and touch them. Here, where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean, stood the Pillars of Hercules. There are places that are designed to act like gates. You can’t avoid the feeling of being sucked through a portal.”

It’s an arrival that was reenacted on location in the new film adaptation, directed by John Michael McDonagh, which hit theaters recently. As the Moroccan coast appears, Ralph Fiennes, in a smart suit, gazes out at the rolling countryside and says to his American wife, played by Jessica Chastain, “L’Afrique.” She glances up from her paperback and cynically resigns to the upcoming journey through Muslim countries. The unsettling score swells as the camera slides across the Atlantic into the hills of Tangier.

Osborne is a lifelong observer and author of portals. His seven fictional works since 2012 conjure up stories of contemporary American and European drifters in locations including Thailand, Cambodia, Greece and Morocco. The recurring focus on expats and foreign landscapes has drawn comparisons to Graham Greene and Paul Bowles, but Osborne’s theme is not the post-war era; it is the globalized post-9/11 present.

In the film and novel The Forgiven, the genteel central couple, played by Chastain and Fiennes, accidentally kill a Moroccan boy on the desert road to a lavish international soiree. They bring the body with them while the pool party goes on – until the boy’s Bedouin father arrives to reclaim his son and demand penance. In the following Clash of Civilizations there is racist, classicist insults, homophobic and sexist asides and violence. McDonagh tells me he pursued the rights to the novel because he loved its ethical ambivalence and Osborne’s refreshing lack of morality. “Lawrence has no problem writing 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 his candid and provocative portrayal of how his western and Moroccan characters clash. The somber tone and sharp dialogue are bluntly out of sync with the hopeful – and perhaps more palatable – contemporary ideals of cross-cultural understanding.

For a writer of as much insight and sensitivity as Osborne, this is very intentional. “That’s how people talk, on all sides and everywhere,” he says via Zoom from his home in Bangkok. “Most human discourse is pretty brutal most of the time, except when we’re in a polite, middle-class world and people are stepping on eggshells. But behind closed doors, when people are with their tribe, the brutality returns.” Osborne makes no apologies for his position, saying the rise of a cautious and self-censoring approach to writing the “Other” produces stories that are not only less honest, but also less interesting. “When someone censors themselves, you know they’re doing it. I think readers want something unvarnished, something rawer, even if it’s meaner.”

Prior to the publication of The Forgiven, Osborne spent two decades in New York as a travel writer, covering the new borderless, hyperconnected, and gilded world that globalization had created. But he says his mission has always been to give his full-time attention to novelizing the complicated realities of the nations he’s experienced in the field.

He says what initially drew him to foreign correspondence and travel writing still lingers – a deep love of places. But while he’s lost his patience trying to capture the zeitgeist of Asia or the Middle East for the tourism-industrial complex, he’s found a novel way of conveying the layers of history and identity that make places and people tick. “That gives meaning to human life, that we do not forget the past and that the dead are among the living.”

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Strange Places in his fiction are as raunchy and prone to contradiction as the unlikable characters who inhabit them. These are not meandering and wistful tales of wanderlust, but tight-knit, propulsive novels that find someone far more distant and contorted than they ever imagined. “It taps into that existentialist idea that underlies a lot of Lawrence’s work—that you can’t escape your own nature,” says McDonagh. “When you look at his characters, they’re either fleeing something or seeking oblivion in a strange place.”

To reflect these voyages, Osborne’s writing revels in other places—filled with poetic descriptions evoking shifts in wind patterns, shadows on the Mediterranean surf, light gliding across desert sands. The grandeur of these settings deliciously contrasts with the stupidity and darkness of his characters. With contemporary American and British fiction’s fixation on inwardness and private drama, the outside world and how it shapes character has faded from view. It’s this insistence on foreign places as characters that makes his work inherently cinematic.

The Forgiven is the first of several film adaptations of Osborne’s work currently in production. It was shot entirely on location in Morocco, despite the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, and maintains the thematic breadth of the novel. Osborne has been careful to select filmmakers who don’t sand its edges for easy consumption, and despite its all-star cast, it’s an independent and distinctive film. In McDonagh, whose filmography includes “Cavalary” and “The Guard,” Osborne says he’s finally found a filmmaker whose satiric and comedic flair could capture the disturbing essence of “The Forgiven” in translation.

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Osborne’s latest novel about expat-ennui, On Java Road, will also be published this summer. It’s the story of a fading friendship between an Englishman and a Hong Konger, set during the 2019 Chinese crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in the once British-ruled city-state. I read this latest epic on expatriation while in the process of repatriation.

My journey home to the United States after living in the Arabian Gulf for almost three years has produced a kind of constant inner switching – an abrupt alternation between lamenting the political crises here at home and the very real joys of returning home. I find myself wondering if the years abroad have changed me or just further thrown off course.

International movement has never been easier, but with airports devastated by “vengeance travel” and resource wars, is it even worth going anywhere else? It is precisely this kind of fast travel that Osborne says has ruined what travel at its finest can offer – a real sense of disorientation and expansion. In the growing environment of what he calls ‘planet tourism’, his novels have become his radical re-imagining of travel writing – as sensual, provocative and compelling portraits of life and places in flux.

Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Newsweek, and NPR.

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