Satiric Literature for an Education System in CrisisMohamed Nedali’s Grâce à Jean de la Fontaine!
In the press and in public appearances, Moroccan authors frequently accuse the education system of not sufficiently encouraging students to become readers and consumers of literature. Mohamed Nedali’s novel Grâce à Jean de la Fontaine! uses the form of a semi-autobiographical novel to make a similar accusation. Nedali’s text is one of a growing number of Moroccan narratives that criticize local school systems, thus occupying a paradoxical position. Can a novel truly critique the institution responsible for its continued existence? In this article, I argue that Grâce à Jean de la Fontaine! uses the literary form to reimagine the relationship between literature and education. The text’s enigmatic narrator, Mohamed Né… tests the boundaries of autobiography in order to satirize the foundational assumption of the educational autobiography: that the school turns students into authors. The novel also utilizes Jean de la Fontaine as an allegorical figure. La Fontaine’s Fables, a traditionally pedagogical text that nonetheless uses satire to speak truth to power, echoes the problematic position of Nedali’s Grâce à Jean de la Fontaine!. Ultimately, I show that by interrogating and deconstructing the cultural significance of La Fontaine, this text imagines how Moroccan francophone literature can use its marginal status as a space of educational critique, while still promoting the continued growth of local literary culture.
Moroccan literature, Mohamed Nedali, Education, Satire, Parody
One of the most maliciously funny episodes of Mohamed Nedali’s 2004 novel Grâce à Jean de la Fontaine! is triggered by the drowning of a book. The novel’s narrator, a young teacher named Mohamed, is vacationing in Agadir, Morocco. He brings along a rather peculiar “beach read”: a French nouveau roman by Michel Butor. Proclaiming Butor’s experimental style an absurd waste of his time, Mohamed tosses the book into the ocean and pins it under a rock, ensuring that it will never resurface. A nearby beachgoer, identified only as “une vieille touriste française, ou belge” (225) becomes agitated, accusing Mohamed of disrespect for a French literary classic. The young man is hauled into the police station, where the police are genuinely confused as to the nature of his offense. Drowning a book is not a crime in Morocco where, as one illiterate officer glibly remarks, “vous pouvez jeter à l’eau toute une bibliothèque, vous ne risquerez absolument rien!” (226). Forced to think on his feet, Mohamed claims that the book cast into the ocean was entitled Les bagnards du royaume, and criticized the incarceration of political prisoners in Morocco. The episode concludes as the hero walks free, leaving behind a group of police officers scrambling to locate and arrest the tourist.
Were the novel’s titular fabulist Jean de la Fontaine to compose a moral for this vignette, it would likely read: “literature’s greatest strength comes from criticizing those in power.” This sentiment applies to Nedali’s novel, which casts a satiric eye on the teachers and administrators of the Moroccan public school system. While writing about the education system has a long history in Moroccan and Maghrebi literature, especially in autobiographical forms, the coupling of an educational theme with a satiric style is a relatively recent phenomenon. This stylistic choice echoes the discourse of crisis around the Moroccan education system: the country struggles with [End Page 281] illiteracy rates estimated over 33% (World Bank), frequent changes in educational language policy (Mouhssine 54), and a recent ranking as one of the worst performers in the educational sector in the MENA region (Boutieri 443). Understandably, these issues affect how the Moroccan literary sphere relates to the school, as authors accuse the institution of failing to create readers of literature.
Yet, Nedali’s novel does more than mock education’s failings: it also critically rethinks literature’s relationship to the educational apparatus. I argue here that Nedali’s school satire can only be understood as it relates to another closely-related form: parody. Nedali’s satire is achieved through a parody of traditional educational autobiographies, recycling and commenting on their tropes in order to contest their underlying narrative assumption that formal education turns students into consumers and producers of literature. This reflection on the precarity of literature informs the second part of this article, which shows how Nedali contends with pessimism about education. He does so by imagining a shift in literature’s role, from seeking a place in the literary canons of the school system to critiquing education from a marginal position. Using the allegorical figure of La Fontaine, Grâce explores the relationship between education and the francophone Moroccan novel.
Satire, Parody, and the Educational Autobiography
The protagonist of Mohamed Nedali’s novel is a first-person narrator named “Mohamed Né...” who recounts his experiences as a young student-teacher in the 1980s. At the Centre Pédagogique Régional de Marrakech, where Mohamed does his training, he encounters teachers who barely speak the languages they teach and who replace pedagogy with absurdist nonsense. In Mohamed’s first job, teachers are subject to the whims of the illiterate school director, also known as “L’Emir,” who runs his establishment through favoritism and bribery. Mohamed’s refusal to recognize the Emir’s authority sees him exiled to a rural town named Tinghir, “une zone dite disciplinaire” (95). Despite minor career successes, Mohamed’s over-arching narrative is one of increasing desperation, culminating in his punishment for forbidding an influential man’s daughter to cheat on an exam. The story ends as the protagonist passes a test qualifying him for further training in Nancy, France. He embarks upon this new adventure “en jetant sept cailloux blancs par-dessus mes épaules pour ne plus jamais y remettre les pieds” (326). [End Page 282]
The presence of a first-person narrator whose name resembles the author’s raises the question of whether this work can be categorized as an autobiography. Indeed, there are compelling arguments for reading this work as a “traditional” autobiography, adhering to many strictures out-lined by theorists. The primary establishing principle of the form is the “identité de l’auteur (dont le nom renvoie à une personne réelle) et du narrateur,” because the two share a name (Lejeune 14). Paratextual and narrative elements that typically signal how readers should interpret the work (Genette 11) also suggest similarities between narrator and author. Although the word “autobiography” appears nowhere in the paratext (the word “roman” is used instead), a short biography on the back cover of the book indicates that Mohamed Nedali is from Tahennaoute, while Mohamed Né... is from “Tahe...” (15), that both studied in Marrakech, and traveled to Nancy for pedagogical training. Elements inside the narrative further guide readers towards an autobiographical reading. The narrator reassures readers that he paints a faithful portrait of his former self, performing adherence to the autobiographical requirement of truthfulness (Lejeune 36). There are also hints that Mohamed Né...’s confessions are verifiable in the Morocco of Mohamed Nedali: he tells the story of a former student Brick Dib, assuring that “je vous livre son vrai nom, étant certain qu’il ne lira jamais ce livre, ni n’importe quel autre, d’ailleurs” (265). Insinuating that a character inside the novel is a potential reader of the text suggests further parallels between authorial and textual worlds.
Yet many elements in this novel defy expectations of autobiographical conventions. The typography of the narrator’s name “Né...” invites the reader to complete it with the author’s, but also refuses to draw that conclusion explicitly. Instead, the truncated name Né (meaning “born”) and its ellipse textualize distance between the author and the narrator to which his pen has given birth. Furthermore, Mohamed Né...’s personality is as deliberately difficult to grasp as his elliptical name suggests. The narrator of Grâce is enigmatic at best, condemnable at worst, and “quand on observe de près ses méthodes pour s’en sortir, on se trouve confronté à un arriviste, voire un pourri” (Nasseri 297). Né... simultaneously critiques and participates in behaviors ranging from violent outbursts, to the objectification of women, to greed and manipulation. The text actively draws attention to these vacillations, as Mohamed wonders if he is “raciste, malade ou fou à lier” (158), considers that some of his attitudes towards women will anger feminists (302), and finally wonders why he bothers trying to be a good person: “j’en avais assez de jouer le type sociable, solidaire, altruiste, [End Page 283] généreux . . . enfin tout ce tralala qui ne me ressemblait point” (203). The narrator’s troubling satiric tone leaves the reader perplexed regarding the sincerity of his former assurances of autobiographical truthfulness.
Previous theoretical works on Moroccan and Maghrebi autobiography suggest that writing in the language of the former colonizer, and in a genre often associated with European literary traditions, necessitates transgressions of the form. It is not my intent to debate whether autobiography was originally a “European” form: scholars have discussed the long tradition of Arabic self-writing while noting that autobiographical practices developed differently in different cultural contexts.1 More pertinent to this study is critical work on transgression in contemporary francophone autobiography, which provides potential interpretive frameworks for understanding Grâce’s genre play. Françoise Lionnet’s work, for example, discusses the imperative for authors who “must survive (and write) in the interval between different cultures and languages” (1) to draw from the former colonizer’s literary models and to break them. For example, her discussion of how Mauritian author Marie-Thérèse Humbert presents both a “linear narrative and a fragmented self-portrait” (222) in order to deconstruct the narrator as a traditional heroine and reconstruct her as a writer echoes Nedali’s refusals to fully identify himself with the “hero” of his story.
Hafid Gafaïti’s discussion of Rachid Boudjedra’s transgressions of the genre illuminates other possible interpretive frameworks. For Gafaïti, Boudjedra’s experimental narrative style excludes autobiographical readings, which often rely on the linear retrospective of the life of a single protagonist-narrator. Yet Boudjedra gives a “clin d’oeil” to readers seeking an autobiographical reading, by including “un certain nombre d’indices (prénom, profession, date de naissance et contexte social)” that resemble those of the author (222), much as Nedali does. Gafaïti posits that playing with autobiographical conventions can allow “l’élargissement de la subjectivité du personnage-narrateur à une réalité socio-politique” (232), which is certainly at stake in Nedali’s personalized discussion of Moroccan education. At the same time, stylistic innovation allows authors to “transcend” autobiographical writing and social commentary and “poeticize” it (232). Gafaïti’s work on transgression in autobiography offers an important corrective to tendencies in criticism of Maghrebi novels to read them primarily, or exclusively, for their social and political commentary,2 and highlights how works like Nedali’s are committed to both the political and the poetic.
However, there is another possible explanation for why Nedali’s novel simultaneously embraces and rejects autobiographical conventions, which [End Page 284] is that Grâce can be read as a parody. The choice of parody as an interpretive frame for this novel might at first appear counterintuitive: parody is commonly defined as an “exaggeration or distortion” of an individual literary work, often in order to discredit it (Ryan-Hayes 5). While Nedali’s text does not indicate a single literary predecessor as a target of ridicule, it does conform to the broader definition put forth by Linda Hutcheon in her work A Theory of Parody. Hutcheon argues that parody does not necessarily aim to discredit other work(s), but can act as “a critical act of reassessment and acclimatization” (2) of previous forms. Furthermore, a parody does not have to take a single work as its source—it can target a vast web of “codified form[s]” (Hutechon 18) recognizable across an entire genre of literary texts.
The literary genre that Grâce parodies is the educational autobiography, or the literary narrative of the self focusing on formal schooling. Specifically, Nedali’s novel parodies the assumption inherent in these works that the protagonist is an avatar of the author formed in the school system. This assumption is sometimes explicit, as with Tunisian author Albert Memmi’s La Statue de sel. Like Nedali’s novel, this text concludes as the protagonist faces an exam. Instead of answering questions about the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the young student chooses to compose “what is, for the reader, the narrative of the novel” (Hayes, Queer Nations, 284). While Memmi’s text criticizes French colonial education and defies many expectations about autobiographical writing, the use of the final exam to write his life story nonetheless completes the process by which the protagonist transforms from student into author inside the classroom. In Abd al-Ghani Abu al-Azm’s Al-Darih (The Mausoleum), the author inserts chapter-long dialogues between himself and the “child that I was,” high-lighting the enduring connection between the student protagonist and the author-narrator. This connection can also be made more implicitly, as in Abdellatif Laâbi’s discovery of a love of the French language in Le fond de la jarre, hinting to a later career as an author.
Grâce parodies the elements of these works that suggest the protagonist’s successful journey from student to author. In the closing scenes, Mohamed takes a final exam clearly reminiscent of the “exit exam” moment in Memmi’s novel and many others. The written portion requires an analysis of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s La Prière de l’absent because, Mohamed explains, the author has just won the Prix Goncourt.3 He writes his essay with a technique he calls “l’engraissement,” stuffing his essay with both real and invented quotations. In the oral exam that follows, Mohamed has [End Page 285] prepared a poem by Rimbaud, but discovers that his examiner is, according to him, a radical “wahhabite” (317). After a long religiously-inflected greeting, Mohamed (who has previously scorned the presence of religious values in the classroom) analyzes Rimbaud’s poem “Une saison en enfer” as follows:
Il y a dans ce texte un propos diffamatoire qui m’a mis hors de moi! Un propos pour lequel ce mécréant de Rimbaud mérite, à mon avis, une lapidation en bonne et due forme! . . . Je n’avais pas en vue la sagesse bâtarde du Coran! dit le vilain mécréant vers la fin de son maudit texte . . . Bâtarde, la sagesse du Livre sacré? S’il y a un bâtard dans ce bas monde, c’est bien lui, Arthur Rimbaud!(321)
The scene is written as a triumph for Mohamed Né..., and thus adheres to the structural codes of narratives of apprenticeship, wherein the protagonist passes an initiatory test by reproducing what he has learned. Yet Nedali adopts parody’s hallmark “critical distance” from these tropes, by changing the content of this test. Whereas other authors learn the tools of their writing trade Mohamed has simply learned to plagiarize, invent, and reproduce the very nonsense he himself had previously mocked.4
Re-reading this scene as a parody also helps readers understand why the protagonist is so difficult to assimilate to, or differentiate from, the author of the text. In parodying education novels the text attacks their central conceit: that the protagonist of the novel is an avatar for the author. The unfulfilled potential of Mohamed Né... to ever conclusively “become” Mohamed Nedali for readers is thus linked to the difficulty of any character, in a school setting, to eventually become an author in a broken system. Through this particular type of parody, Grâce satirizes a crisis in education and readership that concerns many Moroccan authors. In 2004, Ahmed Bouzfour refused the “Prix du Maroc du livre,” because the book had sold, by his estimation, only 500 copies. He noted that “j’aurais aimé recevoir un prix d’un gouvernement qui veut et qui peut mettre fin à l’analphabétisme” and “qui veut et qui peut augmenter le nombre des lecteurs” (qtd. in Laroui 112), thus tracing a direct line between government mishandling of educational policy and the struggles of authors to sell books.
Yet Nedali’s choice to use parody to satirize government neglect of education requires further theorizing of the difference between satire and parody. Theorists clarify that “the former posits extramural targets (politics, social mores, cultural institutions, etc), while the latter refers to another artistic construct” (Ryan-Hayes 4–5). As Hutcheon explains, the two often [End Page 286] work together: a parody of romantic metrical poetry, for example, can also satirize the chivalric societal ideals that influenced the form (78). Yet although parodies often engage in satire, because their content touches on socially pertinent subject material, Hutcheon insists on the necessity of a formal division between the two, a division maintained by the assumption of the difference between internal (literary) and external (social) targets.
In the case of Grâce, the extramural target of satire is the education system, whereas the artistic construct parodied is the educational narrative. However, distinctions between internal and external objects of critique are not easily maintained if we explore the nature of the relationship between literature and education. In their introduction to Français fictifs, Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey argue that literature is much more than a reflection of the school system. Instead, literature is a product of the linguistic forms and stylistic codes that the school consecrates; an active tool that helps maintain those values. In short, literature “est inséparable . . . des pratiques scolaires qui ne définissent pas seulement les limites de sa consommation, mais les limites internes de sa production même” (24). While separating “intramural” literary and “extramural” societal targets can be useful in order to define parody and satire, the difficulty of applying this distinction to novels about the school suggests that Grâce’s blend of parody and satire requires a different kind of theorization.
While the relationship between literature and the school system allows Nedali’s parody to work effortlessly as satire, it also raises as many questions as it answers. If there is no “extra-muros” when it comes to the school and literature, can any novel truly critically distance itself from the educational institution? Does a novel about the school that claims the school is toxic to novels do anything more than posit the conditions of its own obsolescence? In the tradition of satires that are often not just destructive but ameliorative (Hutcheon 56), Grâce internally seeks new ways to imagine literature’s place within the school. Using the symbolic figure of Jean de la Fontaine, the novel sheds light on cultural and financial complications of teaching francophone literature in Morocco, and imagines the terms of a response from local authors.
Becoming Jean de la Fontaine in Morocco
Grâce alternately adopts and critiques Jean de la Fontaine’s legacy to argue for a literature that is accessible, rooted in and engaged with Moroccan society, and able to use its marginality to critique those in power. To do [End Page 287] so, it draws on the fabulist’s legacy within the French literary canon, contrasting it with his place in the Moroccan classroom. La Fontaine was a 17th-century poet best known for his Fables, a collection of poems typically featuring animals in vignettes conveying social critique and a moral lesson. While La Fontaine carries symbolic weight throughout Grâce, the novel’s title refers to a specific scene in the text. In order to obtain the CAPES (Certificat d’Aptitude Pédagogique à l’Enseignement Secondaire), Mohamed Né... must please a school examiner, Lemfeddi, who loves both La Fontaine and obscure pedagogical terms. Mohamed passes his exam by teaching La Mort et le Bûcheron, in accordance with Lemfeddi’s obsession with a jargon-filled approach, to a group of students to whom Mohamed has provided all the answers beforehand.
The presence of La Fontaine in this scene evokes the fabulist’s eminent status within the French educational literary canon. La Fontaine is considered a cornerstone of the “Panthéon littéraire de saints laïques qui fonde le canon officiel de l’Ecole républicaine” (Albanese 824), and his role as a pedagogical symbol of Frenchness is a recurring theme in French-language literature and film.5 Yet evoking Frenchness in Morocco has its own set of stakes, as illuminated by the significant differences found in two similarly-structured depictions of teaching Jean de la Fontaine, in Grâce and Erik Orsenna’s La grammaire est une chanson douce.
Like Grâce, La grammaire introduces the figure of La Fontaine in a scene in which a teacher uses the fable as part of a teaching evaluation. In this case, a young enthusiastic French teacher named Mlle Laurencin teaches her beloved Fables to a rapt audience of students in France. The examiner, Mme Jargonos, requires strict adherence to meaningless pedagogical directives, not unlike Lemfeddi in Nedali’s novel. Yet in a departure from the irreverent student-teacher of Nedali’s text, Mlle Laurencin will not be deterred in her enthusiasm to teach students this classic of French literature. She reminds them that “le français est votre pays” (13), and suggests that by studying La Fontaine, students will take ownership of their patrimony and learn that “France is French and that, inversely, French is France” (Sachs 97).
The differences and the striking similarities in these two texts indicate that while using Jean de la Fontaine to signify Frenchness is a literary constant, Frenchness itself signifies differently depending on context. Authors like La Fontaine continue to play a role in how we conceive of “being French”: as theorists including Etienne Balibar have argued, “literary pedagogy produces French literature in teaching it, and French literature produces [End Page 288] Frenchness as its reality effect” (Hayes, “Colonial Pedagogies” 156). In French colonial schools in Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, teaching French literature was one way in which “the promise of total assimilation was dangled in front of colonized students” (Hayes 158). As Jarrod Hayes argues, students in French colonies were forced to try to “pass” for French, while also being constantly reminded that assimilation would always be unattainable. This racialized ideal of Frenchness produced in the colonial school was and is inseparable from how that ideal developed in the Métropole, where Frenchness was defined through confrontation with the “colonized other” (Hayes 154).
A less commonly explored part of this dynamic, found here in Grâce, is whether passing remains at stake in the “postcolonial” school. Is the fact that Moroccan students of French read far fewer Maghrebi authors than French ones a remnant of colonial passing, a way to maintain assimilation to metropolitan France as an unattainable ideal?6 Certainly assimilation in the colonial sense was no longer at stake following independence. Especially in light of Arabization policies (which made Arabic the official language of instruction), the school could hardly be said to promote the goal of assimilation to French culture. However, the continued significant presence of the French language and French literature in the Moroccan school system, and the complex relationship between Morocco and France, indicate the lingering pertinence of questioning French literature’s place in the classroom.
A common frame of interpretation for this issue is that because French is the “language of the former colonizer,” it must still bear colonial over-tones in the classroom. Yet this interpretation neglects to consider that learning French has a variety of meanings in Morocco: meanings that are informed by but exceed their colonial past. As Moha Ennaji explains, more than fifty years since Morocco’s independence, the French language dominates most lucrative employment fields (186). One of the greatest challenges of Moroccan education is that wealthier students have access to private schools, which provide them with the education in French necessary to compete on the job market.7 Their public-school counterparts are educated primarily in Arabic, with French offered as a second or third language. However, the French/Arabic divide runs deeper than the fault lines between public and private education. Even within the “nominally Arabized curriculum” of public schools, higher-achieving students are guided towards lucrative technical and scientific fields where French skills are required (Boutieri 444). The French language remains a marker of [End Page 289] social and economic division in Morocco, a fact that gives added dimension to the legacy of La Fontaine when evoked in the Moroccan educational context.
To borrow Jarrod Hayes’ formulation about the colonial school, there is still something “dangled” yet “unattainable” for the students in Mohamed Né...’s classroom, but rather than colonial assimilation it is the economic and social power that comes with speaking French. Mohamed Né... notes that to allow students to display the mastery of the fable and please Lemfeddi, “je leur avais même traduit la fable en berbère” (149), referring to a group of languages spoken by a large percentage of Morocco’s population. Nedali’s novel thus uses La Fontaine to highlight the public school’s failure to take into account the multilingual nature of Moroccan society in the constitution of an educational literary canon. An economic transaction also surrounds teaching La Fontaine: Mohamed Né... bribes the worst-behaved of his students with “cing dirhams” (149) to parrot what the professor has told them to say. In this symbolic transaction between teacher and students, hard currency replaces students’ engagement with literature, pointing directly to the access to purchasing power that so often comes through learning French. Furthermore, the replacement of a literary lesson with money also reminds the reader that access to literature is a financial issue, as texts imported from France are often prohibitively expensive (Boutieri 453).
While implicitly suggesting the problems of an outsized place for French literature in the Moroccan classroom, Grâce also explicitly explores a potential response. Throughout the novel, Mohamed Né...’s adoption of La Fontaine’s writing style deconstructs the fabulist as a representative of French culture and repurposes him as a Moroccan figure. A 1979 article discussing narrative voice in the Fables, for example, includes a description of La Fontaine that could apply to Mohamed Né...: though he is “insouciant” and “slightly anti-social,” he “admits imperfection and reveals his personal flaws to establish intimacy with the reader” (Runte 391). Perhaps the most recognizable hallmark of La Fontaine’s work, the use of animals to represent human characteristics, also pervades Mohamed’s narration. He compares his fellow teachers and students to wolves (118), dogs (10), rhesus monkeys (280), and camels (290), and describes them as having a “muzzle” (50) instead of a face, or “barking” (51) instead of speaking. The most striking shared trait between the narrator and La Fontaine, however, is their tendency to summarize society’s quirks with pithy morals. Several turns of phrase in the novel would not [End Page 290] be out of place in a La Fontaine poem: “un homme avisé ne manifeste jamais sa joie en présence de ses ennemis” (163), or “on n’apprend pas au loup comment on s’introduit dans la bergerie” (118). After hearing his brother-in-law confide his marital woes, the narrator muses “Un chagrin confié pèse dix fois moins qu’un chagrin tu, comme aurait probablement dit Jean de la Fontaine s’il s’était intéressé à ce genre de choses” (63).
Quite explicitly, the narrator suggests to readers that he may be the sort of La Fontaine who interests himself in daily life in Morocco. Like the French fabulist, who drew from Aesop and Phèdre for inspiration (La Fontaine vii), Mohamed Né... draws on his own cultural patrimony to create morals and critique ideas held by his compatriots. When explaining the difficulties between his roommates Aziz, a communist student protester, and Abou Abderrahmane, a devout Muslim, Mohamed muses that “un Frérot et un coco ne font pas plus bon ménage qu’un loup et un chien” (179). He satirizes societal attitudes towards women, sarcastically relating that “une femme digne de ce nom ne désobéit pour ainsi dire jamais à son mari, même quand il est dans l’erreur, dit le hadith chérifien” (70). He even attributes one of his sayings to “Jésus-Christ, ou peut-être Jean de la Fontaine, je ne sais plus” (138), showing that he does not compare himself to La Fontaine without his signature dose of humor.
Nedali’s novel suggests the possibilities of writing about Morocco in the language and voice of a social critic like La Fontaine, a project borne out by the novel’s circulation on the Moroccan literary scene. Critical response to Nedali’s novels repeatedly highlights that he writes for and about Moroccans rather than aiming his novels at a French audience. This positive reaction to his work is all the more remarkable given how pointedly he criticizes his own society, putting his critical reception in direct contrast with that of some of his peers who are accused of “pandering to French or Western audiences” (MacDonald 4). The information available about Nedali’s sales confirms his critical success: his publisher lists him as their highest-selling Francophone literary author (Editions le Fennec). In a climate where the purchasing power to buy French-language books, and the educational access to read them, are often considered the purview of a wealthy elite, Nedali has made his books accessible to readers of lesser financial means. He insists that “les livres qui sortent en France et coûtent 20 euros sont prohibitifs au Maroc . . . J’ai bataillé, négocié serré avec mes deux éditeurs pour obtenir ce droit de publier [au Maroc] avec un prix et ailleurs avec un autre” (La Vie éco). Both the content of these texts and their circulation patterns testify to an awareness of the potential elitism of [End Page 291] francophone literature, coupled with a deft rejection of the idea that this status is deterministic.
The novel does not, however, “resolve” problems linked to readership and education. Selling books at a lower price is a significant decision that nonetheless does not address problems of access to education and the leisure time required to read. Nedali himself has proven less than optimistic about the situation of literary production in Morocco. When asked in an interview if he expected the outlook for the Moroccan literary sector to improve in the near future, he responded by relating his pessimism to the problems of public schools:
A mon avis, non. Parce qu’il n’y a pas de réelle volonté de le faire. . . . Bon, je n’exclus rien dans le futur, même si je n’ai pas l’impression que les choses soient près de changer. Il faut savoir que pour faire aimer la lecture aux Marocains, il faut commencer à l’école.(Femmes du Maroc)
Yet at a time when conversations about Moroccan francophone literature seem increasingly fatalistic, Grâce does more than decry the marginalization of literature. The text imagines its relationship to the school space by playing with the subversiveness that can come with marginality.8 This attitude is exemplified in the previously discussed scene in which Mohamed obtains his CAPES by “teaching” a La Fontaine fable to students. Aware of Lemfeddi’s love for nonsense language, Mohamed describes his pedagogical approach as follows:
Pour l’activité de production écrite, j’ai opté volontiers pour l’approche lexico-syntaxico-sémantico-thématique, car dans toute micro-structure narrative de nature semi-divergente, ou plutôt semi-convergente, comme celle d’aujourd’hui, c’est la seule approche didactico-cognitive qui puisse mobiliser l’ensemble des préacquis et acquis lexico-morpho-sémio-linguistiques . . .(151)
This scene is not just another iteration of the “meaningless” language that inhabits the classrooms of Grâce. Rather, it must be considered in the context of the exchange with Lemfeddi that directly follows it. After Mohamed displays his mastery of “le lexique abscons,” Lemfeddi expresses his one remaining concern about awarding the CAPES: he is hesitant to promote anyone who resists authority as blatantly as Mohamed does. Their discussion unfolds as Lemfeddi observes that the head of Mohamed’s school: [End Page 292]
– [. . .] m’a en effet appris que vous ne lui . . . comment dire cela? vous ne lui obéissez jamais! N’est-ce pas folie que de désobéir au maître des lieux, monsieur Né...?
– Moi, désobéir au maître de ces bois? Qu’à Dieu ne plaise, sire! Non, c’est plutôt l’ignorance à vingt trois carats de l’homme que je ne puis souffrir!
– D’un magistrat ignorant, c’est la robe qu’on salue, Monsieur Né..!
– J’en conviens, mais peut-être me vois-je obligé de vous mettre au courant de toute la situation . . .(152–53)
Expressions such as “maître de ces bois,” “à Dieu ne plaise, sire” and high-register structures such as “me vois-je” and “je ne puis souffrir” all clearly evoke mastery of La Fontaine’s style. In fact, the exchange even employs rhyming couplets: “obéissez jamais / monsieur Né...” “qu’à Dieu ne plaise, sire/que je ne puis souffrir,” and “monsieur Né... / me vois-je obligé.”
When considered together, the style, content, and location of this exchange transmit a specific vision of literature’s place in society. At the heart of this Fontaineian discourse is an argument between Mohamed and Lemfeddi about authority. Throughout the exchange, Mohamed refuses to abandon his struggle against a dictatorial school regime, and it is not coincidental that he would rely on La Fontaine’s style to make such an argument. One of the hallmarks of La Fontaine’s writing is its interest in the dynamics between the strong and the weak, exemplified by the fable that Mohamed chooses for his sample lesson, La Mort et le Bûcheron:
. . . Quel plaisir a-t-il eu depuis qu’il est au monde? En est-il un plus pauvre en la machine ronde? Point de pain quelquefois, et jamais de repos. Sa femme, ses enfants, les soldats, les impôts, Le créancier, et la corvée Lui font d’un malheureux la peinture achevée . . .(34)
As part of his classroom observation, Mohamed asks his students to write a story that could end with a different Fontainean moral: “On voit bien que de tout temps les petits ont pâti des sottises des grands” (150). While Lemfeddi ends the writing exercise before the students can complete it, they would not have had to look far for inspiration for their moral. An exemplary scene has just played out between Mohamed and Lemfeddi on the margins [End Page 293] of their own classroom. The lesson on La Fontaine that Mohamed gives his students is dominated by “l’approche lexico-syntaxico-sémantico-thématique” (151), yet as Lemfeddi pulls Mohamed aside from his role as a teacher, La Fontaine’s animus enlivens the conversation. This scene thus suggests an allegorical reading in which literature becomes subversive from its place “confined” to the margins of the school.
The act of writing about the school from its margins opens up a larger dialogue about the school’s role in literary consecration, and whether literary forms can critique literary institutions. The works of literature that are consecrated by the school are most often those that conform to its standards, not those that question them. However, this dynamic is destabilized in Grâce, suggesting that a literature aware of its own marginal status could use its position to critique institutions of power. This idea has far-reaching implications for educational narratives. A new generation of critical and satiric educational narratives, by authors including Fouad Laroui, Moha Souag and Mohamed Nedali, are unlike their predecessors in that they do not seem to imagine themselves taught inside the institutions they openly ridicule. However, their presence on the Moroccan literary market draws our attention to other places that literature circulates: in book fairs, online, and in any number technological spaces that are “visibly challenging the modes of [literary] emergence previously established by schools . . .” (Dubois 96). Rather than abandoning the school, these works engage in new kinds of boundary pushing. Coupled with the actions of an author like Mohamed Nedali, who fights to make books locally accessible in a variety of ways, these texts are creating a new canon with a subversive voice and a widening reach.
1. See Dwight F. Reynolds’ introduction to Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition.
2. For a further discussion, see Réda Bensmaïa’s Experimental Nations: or, the Invention of the Maghreb, p. 6.
3. La Prière de l’absent (1981) was published before Ben Jelloun won the Goncourt [End Page 294] for La nuit sacrée in 1987. However, Nedali’s mention of the Goncourt suggests that Ben Jelloun’s fame caused examiners to return to his older work for topics.
4. As Hutcheon discusses, plagiarism and parody, while different, share several qualities, including “copying” elements of a previous work (39–40). By showing Mohamed Né... inventing citations from texts that do not exist, Grâce further develops its reflection on transgressive engagement with other texts.
5. Jean de la Fontaine has been used as a marker of “Frenchness” beyond the 17th-century context, including recent works depicting Maghrebi immigration to France. See Jarrod Hayes’s “Colonial Pedagogies of Passing: Literature and The Reproduction of Frenchness” and Mireille Rosello’s “Merzak Allouache’s Salut Cousin!: Immigrants, Hosts, and Parasites” for a discussion of La Fontaine’s presence in the titular film.
6. Laila Aboussi surveys recent Moroccan textbooks, finding that 87.15% of authors chosen are French, while only 5.83% are from the Maghreb, a number that includes not only Moroccan but also Algerian and Tunisian authors (143).
7. Charis Boutieri draws a distinction between foreign and mission schools in Morocco, which may teach entirely in French or English, and private schools, which are subject to the directives of the Ministry of Education. While the Ministry mandates an Arabized curriculum, private schools still use far more French than public schools. Many private schools offer only the (commonly Francophone) scientific track, using Belgian or French textbooks and conducting core classes in French (453).
8. A strict interpretation of Balibar and Macherey’s theories would cast doubt on the possibility for literary texts to critique education. However, drastic departures from the language of the classroom, as well as authors’ efforts to look beyond the school to encounter readers, point to a more subversive approach to the school.