Mohammed, the hero of A Palace in the Old Village, is someone who might be called “a moderate Muslim.” An immigrant from Morocco, he has spent the last forty years working in a French automobile plant and raising a family of five children. He fraternizes with non-Muslims and readily acknowledges the advantages of living in a secular Western country like France. Moreover, he openly criticizes the jihadist imams of the neighboring Parisian slums and the old world Berber practices of soothsaying and spiritual healing. And yet Mohammed has not successfully assimilated into French society; indeed, unlike his children, he stubbornly refuses to do so. The reasons for this, the novel suggests, have as much to do with the prejudices of French society as with the deliberate choices of this particular, possibly typical, Moroccan immigrant of two generations ago. While the novel offers glimpses of the economic and social fissures of contemporary France, with the specter of Le Pen and his far-right anti-immigration National Front party on one side and jihadist preachers and disaffected African youth on the other, A Palace in the Old Village is not a Zolaesque exposé of the failings of French society. Rather, it is an intimate and affecting portrait of an immigrant facing retirement and the concomitant problems of identity it brings with it.
Mohammed’s retirement from the automobile plant, after forty years of dedicated service, triggers his crisis of identity. Without the secure routine of his day at the auto plant what, he asks, will become of him? He was “afraid of tumbling into the ravine of the absurd, of having to face each of his children, over whom he had lost every scrap of authority” (p. 18). Stripped of his identity as an autoworker, he now realizes he has been stripped of his identity as a father. Throughout the novel he continually probes this wounding realization. Growing ever more assimilated in France, his children have grown apart from him and his native Morocco. His son Rachid calls himself Richard; his other son Mourad has married a Spanish woman and his daughter Jamila an Italian. While they have become full citizens of France, he has not. To Mohammed and those of his generation France is to blame: “It’s LaFrance keeping us from educating our children, LaFrance giving them too many rights, and then it’s us in the shit” (23). France is, as an old shepherd expresses it at the end of the novel, the “devourer of children” (163).
Though blinded by self-pity and stubbornness, Mohammed does have a moment of deep reflection when he asks: “My children don’t want to be like me… But do I want to be like me?” (52). It is a question he does not sufficiently answer. In fact, who or what that “me” is never understood by Mohammed. No longer a worker and seemingly no longer a father, he falls back to being simply a Muslim: “My religion is my identity. I am a Muslim before being a Moroccan, before becoming an immigrant” (135). His son Mourad wonders “what would my father be without Islam? … A lost man” (112). Mohammed convinces himself that returning to Morocco and building a house there with all the savings from his job will bring his family back to him, will restore him and his sense of identity.
The reader suspects that this is a fantasy that will end badly for Mohammed. Ineluctably and tragically it does. Only his dutiful wife and Nabile, the mentally handicapped child they adopted, come to visit him in Morocco. His own village there treats him more like a wealthy tourist than a returning son, mocking him as “Mohammed Thimmigrant.” The house he builds is regarded as a monstrosity: “this strange, shapeless building” (132), which “mirrored the confusion of his thoughts” (150). Not only do his family and the villagers reject his plans but the land itself on which he builds rejects him and his house. It is inhabited by jinn, supernatural beings who are unforgiving to trespassers. Stubborn to the end, sinking ever deeper into his leather chair, haunted each night by the jinn, and withering away from the ravages of adult diabetes and prostate cancer, Mohammed, after forty days of passively awaiting his fate, dies alone. The novel portrays his demise with empathy but not without a rich sense of irony. After all, the palace built to reunite Mohammed’s family becomes a tomb, and the occupier of this tomb, in death, becomes a marabout—an intercessor between the human and spirit realms—worshipped by the same superstitious villagers Mohammed showed such contempt for earlier in the novel.
Tahar Ben Jelloun was born in 1944 in Fez, Morocco, and immigrated to France in 1961. There he earned a doctorate in social psychiatry and began writing articles and reviews for Le Monde, as well as fiction and poetry. He is now an internationally recognized novelist, essayist, critic, and poet, and a regular contributor to Le Monde, La Repubblica, El País, and Panorama.
His novels include The Sacred Night, winner of the Prix Goncourt in 1987, Corruption, The Last Friend,Leaving Tangier, and This Blinding Absence of Light, winner of the 2004 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Among his other awards are the Prix Ulysse in 2005 for the entirety of his work and the Cross of Grand Officer of the Légion d’Honneur presented by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008.
Buzz about literary prizes must not interfere with a writer’s work. I write without considering accolades. For me writing is a need and a pleasure. As Samuel Beckett said, “It’s all I’m good at!” or in other words, writing is what I know how to do, and I still hope to improve.
Is it correct that A Palace in the Old Village is one of very few of your novels set in France? If so, why have you seldom written about your adopted country in your fiction?
Q. A Palace in the Old Village is a fictional story that takes place between France and Morocco. This is not the first time I’ve written about France, but I have never used French characters in my novels. I write about Morocco, with Moroccan characters that live in Morocco or Europe. I think France has enough writers to write about France. I am happy to write about the country where I was born because it is a country of wonderful imagination.
Q. You have said that it was a conscious decision to write your fiction in French rather than in your native Arabic. Could you explain the reasons behind this decision? Do you ever write and publish your work in Arabic?
I have always written in French and nothing but French. It is a decision I made the first time I set out to write. I spoke Arabic at home, on the Moroccan street also; but when I wanted to tell stories, I did so in French. I had a bilingual education, in Arabic and French.
Q. You are likely the only Moroccan-born novelist known to most Americans. Are there other writers from Morocco or the Maghreb generally that we should be aware of?
As you know, American publishers translate very little of the literature they publish. I am very happy to have had a dozen of my books translated into English. This does not mean that I am known by most American readers, but I am a little known and studied in American universities. There is a young Moroccan woman living in the United States who writes in English and is published in America, she is Laila Lalami.
Q. Your fiction routinely and courageously confronts sexuality. Has your writing about such taboo topics as prostitution, homosexuality, and pleasure marriage gotten you into any trouble with Muslim authorities around the world?
A writer must not be nice (a good boy). He upsets, unveils, denounces, knocks down taboos, particularly sexual ones. Islam encourages young people to learn about sexuality. There is a saying: “No discretion in religion,” or in other words, you have to say things without falling into vulgarity or voyeurism. I have always tackled these questions without shame or precaution; Islamists have had no need for this in order to criticize me. But a writer must continue on his path, especially if he faces criticism.
Q. Many readers will naturally wonder how much you identify with the protagonist in the novel. How would you characterize your relationship with Morocco? Are your children more assimilated in France than you? Has France “devoured” them? Is Mohammed’s strained relationship with his children and with France typical of immigrants of his generation?
I have a strong bond with my homeland. I am not an exile or an immigrant separated from his country. My children love Morocco (two of them actually live there).
The story of Mohammed is characteristic of a generation that did not believe that one day its children would be more attached to France than to Morocco. This is the source of Mohammed’s drama. He discovers his children are no longer his own. He does not realize that he cannot get them back, as he attempts to do in the novel. This rupture is very normal now. For children of immigrants, their parents’ homeland is a place to spend a vacation, not their home.
Q. Many Americans watched with horror and a sense of familiarity at the rioting that erupted in immigrant sections of Paris and other French cities. Are these tensions growing worse in this difficult economic climate? Is Le Pen’s anti-immigration platform gaining popularity? Is French society as deeply divided as it is portrayed in the international media?
The uprising of young people in 2005 was a rebellion of young French people of immigrant backgrounds; it was not the doing of immigrants. In general, immigrants are peaceful: they work, raise their children, pay taxes, do not protest. But their children, because they are ill-considered by the French government (unemployment in the suburbs where they live surpasses 45 percent), are not recognized; we fail to give them a proper education and do nothing to help them leave their impoverished neighborhoods where delinquency is easy. Le Pen’s party takes advantage of this and groups immigrants and their children together. So France has not yet found serious solutions to this crisis, and it will break out again any day. France’s international image is not good because there is no positive and constructive political position towards this generation of young French people who are victims of exclusion and racism.
Q. In a Paris Review interview, you said you tell your stories “like a Moroccan storyteller.” Could you elaborate on this? How is this different than, say, a French storyteller?
Morocco is a country that inspires one to tell its stories. I consider myself a storyteller-writer, not an oral storyteller like those that exist in public spaces. There is something of the irrational in this country; truths are not always evident; there are mysteries, legends, myths. This is the material of a writer-storyteller. The story captures the reader’s attention and serves as a guide through a labyrinth like J. L. Borges’s. The more problems encountered, the more material the writer can exploit. There is no literature of happiness; there is only literature of the absence of happiness.
Q. Michel Houellebecq recently won France’s Prix Goncourt for his novel, La Carte et Le Territoire. As one of the judges, you had publicly opposed his nomination. Could you explain your reasons? Does Houellebecq pose a threat to the future of the novel in France?
Michel Houellebecq is famous in France and abroad. But his literature is fairly flat and conventional (aside from his first two novels, which are good); there is no style; he himself believes that style is not important. For me, the thing I love most about an author is his style, his interior universe, that which is particular to him. Houellebecq’s last novel is flabby, there are no strong moments; he has erased the aspects of his work that made it original. He has become “correct.” That is why I didn’t like his last book and I said so in August. But my friends in the Académie Goncourt loved the book; so because I am a disciplined democrat, I congratulated the winner the day he won the Goncourt Prize, which is the most prestigious distinction in France.
Q. What are you working on now?
I am working at the moment on a particular novel about Morocco; it is called Morocco-Novels. I am trying to talk about Morocco using all literary genres. I finished a novel on mixed-race marriages called The Man That Loved Women Too Much. It is the story of an artist who has a stroke and cannot paint anymore, of his life and why he suffered this attack. In the second part of the novel his wife responds; thus it is two versions of a novel.