When Driss Chraïbi’s The Simple Past (Le Passé simple) was published in 1954, it was as if an explosion had gone off in the small, old-fashioned mansion of North African literature. Everything that had been written about the Maghreb seemed to lie in ruins—not just exoticizing Western novels and travelers’ accounts, but also the few novels in French by North African writers. Even The Pillar of Salt (1953), Albert Memmi’s remarkable Bildungsroman about a Jewish boy growing up in Tunisia, looked quaint by comparison. Published two years before the end of France’s protectorate in Morocco, The Simple Past was a journey to the end of the colonial night, written with an intransigence and fury that Louis-Ferdinand Céline might have admired.
Chraïbi’s title was suggestive on several registers. The passé simple is a French verb tense used almost exclusively in formal writing, referring to actions that have been definitively completed, residing entirely in the past. In Chraïbi’s novel, the idea of a past entirely cut off from the present is held up to merciless critique. For Driss Ferdi, the young Moroccan who is the hero and narrator of the book, the past is an unbearable weight and an inescapable burden; it is a force of oppression and, sometimes, of evil.
Locked in an agonizing struggle to free himself from the past, Driss drifts inexorably towards confrontation with his tyrannical father, Hajji Fatmi Ferdi, the so-called seigneur, or Lord, who styles himself as a representative of a tradition uncorrupted by French colonialism. In fact, the Lord has signed a pact of cooperation with the colonial authorities (shadowy figures in the novel): in return for good behavior he has been given free rein over his own little kingdom, the Ferdi family, a dictatorship based entirely on his whims. By the end of the novel, two members of the family have been crushed by his rule, and the Lord himself, a once-prosperous tea merchant, has lost his fortune and been exposed as a liar, philanderer, and hypocrite.
The “simple past” does not exist, except as a cruel dream—or as a flimsy rationale for a humiliated man’s arbitrary power. Chraïbi was no supporter of French rule, but he was already preparing for another, postcolonial battle: the struggle against the traditionalist old guard. His depiction of the Lord drew blood.
Yet, for all the scandalous content of Chraïbi’s novel—pedophilia, casual anti-Semitism, collective masturbation and sex in brothels, patriarchal brutality, and, not least, the unmasking of the many hypocrisies concealed by religious piety—what shocked readers most was the violence of its style. The Simple Past is told entirely from Driss’s perspective, in frank, vivid, often coarse language and jarring, Faulknerian shifts in focus and temporality. Allergic to picturesque praise of the homeland, Chraïbi instead evokes the “pungency of horse manure” and the “perfume of the poor” that—mixed with the more pleasing “sweet smells of hot bread and honey cakes”—give Fez its dense and peculiar fragrance.
“I don’t like this city,” Driss tells us. “It is my past, and I don’t like my past… it grasps me and makes an entity of me, quanta, brick among bricks, lizard, dust.” At a funeral, he sees a group of religious scholars and thinks: “The talebs are still howling their Koran. They are always in the cemeteries, permanently… they sleep their lives away in recesses of doors, on cornices, the length of ditches and only awaken to go to howl over a tomb. Later on they’ll go back to their lethargy, hardly interrupted.” The Algerian novelists Rachid Boudjedra and Kamel Daoud would echo Chraïbi’s fearless mockery of religion in their debut novels, Repudiation (1969) and The Meursault Investigation (2013), respectively, both of which can be read as children of The Simple Past.
The unexpected exuberance of this bleak and fiery novel comes precisely from Chraïbi’s commitment to sacrilege, his scorn for what he calls “A good novel of the old type: Morocco, land of the future, of sun, couscous, wogs… the souks, the shantytowns, pashas, factories, dates… An old monkey is going to mix all of that up, between two cocktails, between two farts, between two yawns, is going to make a novel out of it: a comitragic love story with local color.” The profane candor, urgency, and impatience of Driss Ferdi had never been heard before in North African fiction. Like Céline’s Ferdinand Bardamu, J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, Raphael Schlemilovitch in Patrick Modiano’s La Place de l’étoile, or indeed Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy, he is a young écorché vif (“skinned alive”) hurtling towards an unknown future, spitting on—and desperately trying to spit out—the world of his father.
Chraïbi belonged to “the Generation of ’52,” a group of rebellious North African writers who came of age in the last days of French rule, which included Memmi and the Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine, whose novel Nedjma, inspired by his country’s independence struggle, appeared in 1956. Like Memmi and Yacine, Chraïbi was a classic man in between, an “almost Europeanized” native in a colonized society who had been shaped both by his religious community and by a French education that had estranged him from his community and family—the “lion’s mouth,” in Yacine’s words.
The son of a middle-class tea merchant, like his protagonist in The Simple Past, Chraïbi was born in 1926 in El Jadida, a small city south of Casablanca on the Atlantic coast. He studied for three years at a Qur’anic school, then attended the Lycée Lyautey in Casablanca, where his family had moved. After receiving his baccalaureate in 1946, he went to Paris to study chemical engineering and neuropsychiatry, before abandoning formal study. (The titles of the five sections of The Simple Past—“Basic Elements,” “Transition Period,” “The Reagent,” “The Catalyzer,” “Elements of Synthesis”—are indicative of his scientific formation.) He wandered around Canada, Italy, Germany, and Greece, and spent two years in Israel under a Jewish pseudonym while teaching himself to write fiction. After the publication of The Simple Past, he married a French woman, with whom he had five children. They eventually divorced, but apart from a yearlong stay in Morocco, he lived in France and insisted that he was a “writer of French expression, period,” not a Moroccan or Francophone writer.
Nevertheless, in his fiction Chraïbi never left behind the land that had formed him. Secretive about the details of his life, he drew upon them in his fiction, practicing a kind of “autofiction” avant la lettre. Impervious to the folkloric nostalgia that a prolonged exile often creates, he preferred the bitter taste of truth and applied it unsparingly to the experience he knew most intimately: the “cultural schizophrenia” experienced by Western-educated former colonial subjects, which the Iranian philosopher Daryush Shayegan has called “le regard mutilé,” or mutilated gaze. In The Simple Past, Driss has been torn from his roots without being welcomed into French society:
You were the issue of the Orient, and through your painful past, your imaginings, your education, you are going to triumph over the Orient. You have never believed in Allah. You know how to dissect the legends, you think in French, you are a reader of Voltaire and an admirer of Kant. Only the Occidental world for which you are destined seems to you to be sewn with stupidities and ugliness you are fleeing from. Moreover, you feel that it is a hostile world.
A cruel story of youth, The Simple Past calls to mind Paul Nizan’s famous remark in his memoir Aden, Arabie: “I was twenty. I will let no one say it is the best time of life.” When The Simple Past opens, Driss, who is nineteen, is haunted by the sense that his future has already been confiscated by his Lord, and ashamed of his own complicity in the theft. “The Lord is waiting for me. His law is indisputable. My life is ruled by it… What is stupefying is that I keep on listening to him. I even appreciate him… This man in the tarboosh is sure of himself: a fly will not take flight unless he gives it permission. He knows that every word that falls from his mouth will be engraved on my mind.”
In the character of the Lord, who ruthlessly polices every detail of his family’s life, Chraïbi created one of the most terrifying fathers in modern literature. The Lord ridicules Driss for his fair complexion, his European clothes, and his assimilation of French culture (“To look at you, who would take you for an Arab?”), even though it is he who sent Driss to a lycée so that he could acquire the intellectual “arms” of the “enemy.” “We are from the century of the Caliphs,” says the Lord, “you will belong to the twentieth century.” As it turns out, those arms cannot be acquired without internalizing some of the enemies’ ideas—without coming to resemble them in some fashion. In one scene, Driss is at school staring at a blackboard on which a piece of chalk had just elegantly written out the subject of the essay on France: “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” The boots of the monitor sound a coming and going that reminds me of the pendulum of the clock of the Lord. Noisier, no doubt, but just as regular and clearly defined… Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. I am thirsty for words, hungry for incantations.
A French classmate, however, sets him straight on the limits of his dreams: “Because if by chance you become our equals, I ask you: With regard to whom and to what will we then be civilized?” To go to the lycée is to have one’s hopes for freedom simultaneously raised and thwarted.
This experience, this frustrated hunger, would lead the French-educated youths of the Maghreb to demand independence. But the first target of protest, in The Simple Past, is closer to home, as the Lord is only too well aware. Not only is he jealous of his son’s education, but he also suspects, not wrongly, that it is turning Driss against his authority.
“He knows that the Occident towards which he has propelled me is outside his sphere,” thinks Driss. “Therefore he hates it. And out of fear that there be in me an enthusiasm for this new world, he flails, shatters, cuts off, and dissects everything I learn.”
Why, then, does the Lord run the risk of sending his son to a lycée? A father’s “dearest wish,” he says, is for his children “to be better than he in every way.” The Lord wants, in spite of himself, the best for his son, even if it means he will lose him. That his authority is undone by his “dearest wish” does not quite redeem him, but it certainly makes him less of a cartoon villain. It is also a tribute to the complexity of Chraïbi’s vision that the Lord ultimately comes to seem a prisoner of his own regime, as we learn that he is no less susceptible than his son to the temptations of the West. His traditionalism does not represent the resilience of the “simple past,” but rather the convulsions of a traditional society that has undergone modernization and colonization at the same time.
Driss is not the only victim of the Lord’s rule. His brothers are also captives, while his adoring mother has been turned into a beast of burden: “one of my terrestrial contingencies… obedient, submissive, honest,” in the Lord’s description. Yet Driss, his mother’s favorite son, confesses that he, too, “judged her to be weak and awkward, eating, drinking, sleeping, excreting, having intercourse. Respecting the menus established by the Lord, the Lord’s tea, five times a day, or two times a day, and according to the wishes of the Lord.” Driss tells her as much, and so she is doubly victimized, first by her callous husband, then by the son who despises her weakness, perhaps because it reminds him of his own in the face of his father: “My religion was rebellion, even against my mother whose glands I knew were dried up and whose monstrous tenderness I recognized.” Although The Simple Past is not an explicitly allegorical novel, it is tempting to see, in the figure of the mother, a metaphor for the colonized motherland, whose unconditional love is spurned by both the traditionalist father and his angry son. The critic Hédi Abdel-Jaouad, in an essay on mothers and sons in Chraïbi’s work, has suggested that “the Maghrebian text in French—predominantly the story of an Oedipus searching for a Laius to kill—can in fact be seen as the vindication and glorification of motherhood.”
The Simple Past takes place during the last days of Ramadan. What should be a time of spiritual reflection and familial festivity heads, inexorably, toward a violent encounter between father and son. Everything seems to be pointing toward parricide, but the future is no simpler than the past. It is one thing to rebel against your father, another to kill him—particularly if to do so is, in a sense, to kill yourself. As the Lord reminds Driss, “we are not enemies, and even less so, strangers.” Driss grimly concludes that his father is “a capable chess player… With him one has to be subtle, nothing but subtle, more subtle than he [is]. Islam. People live here that way, from subtleties—and you can’t escape otherwise, except by mental suicide.” Liberation may depend on achieving emancipation from the Lord, but a frontal battle isn’t possible. “I am a Moroccan, and in a way, Morocco belongs to me,” Driss declares, but there does not seem to be enough room for both him and the Lord, and in the last pages of the novel, he boards a flight to France, vowing to return.
Three years after the publication of The Simple Past, Chraïbi’s father died. He did not attend the funeral and rejected his inheritance. But he immediately set to work on a sequel, Succession ouverte (1962), in which Driss Ferdi returns from France for his father’s funeral and experiences the epiphany that the Lord “had to die so that I could suddenly realize that I was a living being.”
Laila Lalami, a Moroccan American novelist who grew up in Rabat, has praised Chraïbi as “the first writer I read as a child who created Moroccan characters that were believable.” But they were perhaps all too believable, and certainly too troubling, when the novel was published in 1954. Some Moroccan readers claimed that Chraïbi’s portrait of Moroccan traditional society was consumed by self-hatred, even a betrayal of the independence struggle. The novel was banned in Morocco until 1977.
In a 1962 interview, Chraïbi remarked, “Had there been only the Protectorate and colonialism, everything would have been simple. Then my past, our past, would have been simple. No, Monsieur Sartre, hell isn’t others. It’s also in ourselves.” The original edition of the novel included an epigraph, dedicated to François Mauriac: “At that time there was hope and revolt.” In the 1977 edition, Chraïbi amended the epigraph with a question, addressed to King Hassan II, then presiding over a reign of terror against left-wing dissidents, and to “the other brave leaders of the Arab world”: “Is there nothing more than revolt?” The same question, alas, could be asked of today’s Arab leaders.
This essay is adapted from the introduction to a new edition of The Simple Past by Driss Chraïbi, published by New York Review Books. Adam Shatz will be discussing the novel with writer and curator Omar Berrada at Albertine Books (972 5th Avenue, New York City) on Thursday January 23, from 6:30 to 8 PM.