Book Review: The Simple Past

The Simple Past, by Driss Chraïbi

It is easy to see why this book is considered to be important.  Part of that is due to circumstances of time and place, as the author was part of a cadre of Western-educated Moroccans who found their lyceum education simultaneously alienated them from mainstream French culture which looked down on them as colonials as well as from the traditional culture that rightly viewed them as being a corrupting influence in their society.  Politically nationalist but indolent children of empire, such people have long written self-indulgent novels complaining about how hard life is that bemoan the harshness of education, the limited prospects of advancement, and their difficult relationships with more conservative parents.  This book as all the staples of the sort of semi-autobiographical whinging that one can find in contemporary leftist youth perspectives, and it is therefore little surprise that the novel made the author a popular one even as it left him an exile from Morocco and predictably alienated him from his family there.  If you like accounts of contemporary decadence and gross immorality, and think that sort of grim material makes for compelling literature, this book has plenty of grim material to rejoice in that fits the general theme of literature over the past century or so worldwide in its celebration of filth.

As far as novels go, it is relatively short at only 200 pages or so.  The title is a handy key to understanding the meaning of the novel, such as it is, as it refers to a grammatical tense in French that signifies (usually in literature) something that is definitively over.  Yet the author explores a past that is very much alive, and a great deal of the writing and thinking of recent decades is predicated on the reality that the past is never really gone but continues to shape things long afterward.  This is admittedly not much to hang a novel on, and the plot explores the goings on of an obvious stand-in for the author also named Driss who is in the process of passing his qualifying tests to study at a French university while he casually insults his mother and drives her into despair and deals with his abusive and old-fashioned father who, contrary to his own best interests, wanted his son to have the best education even if that means being indoctrinated by French leftists as is often the case.  Meanwhile the protagonist has some unpleasant encounters with prostitutes as well as a pedophile cleric and the seemingly inevitable clash between the protagonist and his father is avoided by the son running away to go to university in France.

It is clear that the author believes that telling his own thinly (if at all) disguised personal experiences of life as a privileged Moroccon child of nobility (his father is not called Lord for no reason, after all) who finds himself alienated by education from his culture as well as the imperial culture that desired to educate him but not fully respect him is worth reading by other people.  He seems to think that the symbolic status of the protagonist as a picture of the educated colonial, the mother as the loving but rejected nation, and the father as the brutal and hypocritical traditional Muslim makes the novel rise above Maghreb pornographic gossip.  It’s unclear that the author really understands what he is about, though, as his novel is not particularly different except in matters of local color from a great deal many other similarly unpleasant and not very redeeming novels written from the same point of view of those whose education corrupted them and whose over-inflated sense of self-importance compelled them to write what does not edify at all and that reflects badly on both the vanity of the author and the lack of value of the education that he and so many others have received and suffered as a result of.  There is no glory in being a corrupt and decadent elite of a post-colonial nation; it would be far better to be a semi-literate but decent and honorable peasant.  But such honorable and decent people do not write novels like this, nor are their lives and works praised by other corrupt and decadent elites who think such a book as this one is worth reading and, more bizarrely, worth writing in the first place.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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