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Book Review: Powerful exempted from responsibility in the aftermath of colonialism

24th Mar 2020
Book Review: Powerful exempted from responsibility in the aftermath of colonialism

The Simple Past. By Driss Chraibi. Introduction by Adam Shatz. Translated from the French by Hugh A Harter. Pp 220. New York Review Books. 2020. $15.95.

The Simple Past was originally written in French, and Driss Chraibi is considered a bulwark of Moroccan literature. It’s a tale of coming of age of a boy who goes to a French Lycee in colonial Morocco.

Like any other coming of age account, it is full of angst, but the eloquent vulgarity with which he does it that makes this book really powerful. It’s a pseudo autobiography. Although we know it to be a work of fiction, the similarities between the protagonists – also called Driss – to the life of Driss Chraibi are very hard to ignore.

In writing a fictional account, Chraibi can really lean into the discomfort. Each sentence punches you in the gut. It’s a quest for justice, but talks of the rot he finds within the community and the public way in which he did so has made him infamous.

The main protagonist is Driss who is part of a family of seven boys and a submissive mother who is overpowered by his father, whom he calls ‘The Lord.’ ‘The Lord’ is an overarching presence throughout the book, and you can feel his angry and critical eye everywhere.

The Simple Past is Driss’s attempt to tear away from his father, whom he abhors, but can never truly break away from.

As a young four-year-old boy Driss was sent to a religious school, which he describes as: ‘The school in question is quite simply a shop that is generally dark and has an earthen floor covered in mats.

Children from four to twelve years, and sometimes adolescents, sit cross-legged on the floor all day long, holding their board on their knee, speaking with a nasal accent, reciting in a drone, and squeezing their fists with every mistake of memory. This hubbub is coloured by suffering, hunger, silent tears and resignation.’ (p27)

His ability to re-enact the physical and emotional environment in the book is what makes this book stand out.

Driss is sent to a French Lycee, and he mentions his lack of belonging to the French school: ‘Just imagine a Negro who turns white from one day to the next, but whose nose, either by lucks omission or by spite, remains black.’ (p11)

His words are hilarious. It is akin to when a person intending to sit down misses his chair and the public humiliation stops you from expressing the hilarity of the poor soul’s predicament.

In articulating his relationship with his colonisers Driss mentions: ‘Let’s get to the core of the matter: you do not accept me. I cannot be your equal, because that is your secret fear: that I become your equal, and that I come to demand my place in the sun.’ (p159). Which is so true of any anti-colonial movement.

Driss’s book is an effective tool to talk about the corruption that we see within our communities. However, it allows the powerful to be exempt from their responsibility for the aftermath of colonialism, and I find that disturbing.

This book eviscerates the perpetrators of injustices within our own community, such as ‘The Lord’ and articulates the fallibility and underlying criminality of religion and religious practices.

As a story, the plot lacks a journey, but the anger-filled tirade is riveting to read. The pain is very personal and private, but you cannot look away even though you know you ought to.

Aasiya I Versi

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