Hassan Najmi, a renowned Moroccan author and poet, presents in Gertrude an unusual novel about the famous American Gertrude Stein. Najmi’s narrator is himself a writer, self-consciously relating a story he has been told by his friend and fellow Moroccan, Muhammad. Much older than the narrator, Muhammad has confided that when he was a young man he met Gertrude and became her lover. On his deathbed, he urges his friend to write it all down.
Somewhat reluctantly the writer settles to his task, and as he does so, embarks on his own love affair with an American woman who helps him research Gertrude. This present-day story intertwines with Muhammad’s time in Paris in the 1920s where the fictional Moroccan is given a room in Alice Toklas’ and Stein’s home. He attends her salons and observes her obsession with the portrait Picasso has painted of her. He becomes her lover, sleeping with Gertrude upstairs while her other lover, Alice, sleeps downstairs – and vice versa. The portrait of Gertrude that develops out of this structure is intriguing. She is a complex character, not always sympathetic, but at the same time warm and charismatic.
In writing Gertrude, Najmi is clearly concerned with the ideals and challenges of creativity and he examines this through his characters and their reflections on their own and each other’s work. This makes it an interesting and thoughtful novel – in no sense a biography of Stein – but it should appeal to anyone interested in the period.