Perception of the Other through the Myth of the Prodigal Son in Contemporary French-Language Moroccan Literature

Hollosi Szonja, University of Szeged, Hungary, and University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France

On the day following the liberation of Morocco, a new myth is born in the Maghrebian French-language literature: that of the Rebel Son. As I shall demonstrate in the following pages, the works of Driss Chraibi, Mohamed Dib, Malek Alloula and Abdelwahab Meddeb reveal the transformations of the the cultural imaginary in Maghreb from liberation to the present. Mythocritical, imagological, and anthropological approaches to the myth of the Rebel Son (which by now has turned into the myth of the Prodigal Son) shows it to be a medium for communicating the perception of the Other. The dilemmas of identity and cultural status faced by authors and their audience provide the context (or background) of these transformations of myth.

We shall examine the transformations in the myth of the Prodigal Son in the late '90s in the novels of three Moroccan French language writers: Abdelhak Serhane's Le Deuil des chiens (1998); Driss Chraibi's Vu, lu, entendu (1998); and Fouad Laroui's Méfiez-vous des parachutistes (1999). Reading them, we wonder whether more than 50 years after the liberation of Morocco the interculturality symbolized by the mythical figure of the Emigrant-Son-turned-Immigrant reflects the dilemmas concerning the perception of the Other in today's modern multicultural societies. Does this image or topos reflect the trap of categorization?

I. Obsessive Themes in Maghrebian Postcolonial Literature

When studying Maghrebian authors' francophone narratives, new myths emerge through the vocabulary in usage, constellations of scenarios, and obsessive themes that the imagological method -- as described by Daniel-Henri Pageaux -- reveals to us. Proceeding first to an imagological analysis of the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb's Talismano (1979), Driss Chraibi's Le Passé simple -- The Simple Past (1954), his L'Inspecteur Ali et la C.I.A. (1997) and two short stories: "Rencontres" (1997) of the Algerian Mohamed Dib, as well as "Mes enfances exotiques" (1997) of Malek Alloula the following obsessive themes emerged: religion, women, language and a sort of revolt that consists in a clear wish to join the Other, to assimilate him to our culture or to assimilate ourselves to his.

The words of the Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, which almost sound like accusations or the child's astonishment at the kindness of the French teacher in Dib's short story or the Maghrebian protagonist's laughing at the French couple's obscene adventure in the forest in the short story of Alloula, all show the search for a common point. We cannot find any violent 'wanderlust' here, as in Chraibi's Le Passé simple (1954). Nevertheless those elements of the Rebel Son's myth which turn him into Prodigal Son, are yet not present. However, in Chraibi's Inspector Ali and the C.I.A. it is a cunning Moroccan of mixed culture who faces the international underworld.

Certain changes -- a development -- can be followed, A relevant moment occurs, for example, when Inspector Ali's Scottish wife becomes a mother, an event that rarely happens to the Other women. Nonetheless, one does not encounter the peaceful coexistence of the Maghrebian and French cultures, or both with Western cultures, that one would expect in contemporary works. Instead, these contemporary texts expand the field of the Other.

Looking at the literary careers of these Maghrebian writers, we are surprised by their lack of homogeneity. We cannot forget that, when speaking about the French language Maghrebian literatures, the participation in the culture of the Other is automatic since the use of the language makes self-evident the penetration into the world of the Other. Whether an author is living in the Maghreb or abroad -- that is to say, whether the coexistence of his two cultures is virtual or real -- has no effect on the writer's obsessive themes.

Several works that appeared in 1990 in Morocco focus on the transformations of the myth that reflects on the new projection of the identity issue of today's Maghrebian writers. The contemporary Moroccan writer culturally is not part of the West. In bookshops in France one can see that neither cultural identity nor nationality decides whether an author belongs to the category of French writers (see Laronde in bibliography). In the first part of Driss Chraibi's memoir published in 1998, as well as in Abdelhak Serhane's Le Deuil des chiens and Fouad Laroui's Méfiez-vous des parachutistes the Other is not the French colonist any longer, but one's allegedly "own" culture.

II. Comtemporary Moroccan French Language Literature: a mythocritical approach to imagological process

It is time to specify what mythocritic means by myth. Pierre Brunel wrote in his Mythocritique, théorie et parcours that myths are supposed to dispose of three things: emergence, radiation, and flexibility. Mythical occurrences, indispensable for the emergence of images in the text, are detectable with the help of the imagological process. Radiation is the power that allows the appearance of scenarios, and flexibility permits transformations of the given myth.

According to imagological terminology, the constellations of images or patterns obtained by collecting key words (mots clés) and fantasmatic words (mots fantasmes) are potential new myths in the imaginary of a particular culture. The myth of the Rebel Son, for example, appeared in Moroccan French language literature with Driss Chraibi's first novel. Since then this myth has undergone permanent transformations. The Rebel Son, emigrant and, later on, immigrant, has recently become the Prodigal Son who, at once, has immersed in several cultures and who will equally be an issue or a subject to the culture of the Other where he manifested as both familiar and stranger to two different worlds simultaneously.

Throughout the scenario's changes of revolt, departure, or return in the narratives of Chraibi or Laroui, the language of expression is put into question, as is the definition of the imaginary of an observing culture. At the same time, Abdelhak Serhane's novel, Le Deuil des chiens relates an emigration / immigration, or a return to the self, where the same scenario blatantly appears. If we are to apply imagological analysis to these contemporary Moroccan novels, we infer two things: First, that these works embody obsessive themes. Second, these words embody scenarios that eventually become the skeletons of new myths.

These authors interweave the complex scenario of the myth (the Moroccan-in-revolt) with various emerging themes, such as religion (as engineer Machin remarks that for him the Islam is only one of the five universal religions, or in Serhane's novel the three sisters who criticise their father's religiousness), the woman (for instance an anecdote in Chraibi's memoirs, where a French policeman makes a student, the main protagonist, leave his hosts, the 'girls', whom he liked despite their occupation), and the language of expression (see engineer Machin's long reflections that he does not have a first language).

When analysing these works the question automatically arises: does the researcher define the observing culture? Are the traditional indicators defining both otherness and culture still vigourous considering the demographic mixture that now characterises France? Furthermore, the transformations undergone in a myth like that of the Prodigal Son resist socio-cultural changes. The Moroccan cultural imaginary therfore does not refer, henceforth, to the Maghreb as a geo-politically defined unit, nor does it refer to the Moroccan.

Emmanuel Todd deals with fond commun minimal (the minimal common or shared foundation beliefs) which exist, in the case of the contact between universalist French society and that of Maghrebian which is equally universalist. But investigating cultural diversities during this postcolonial period, comparing the fates of immigrants in the United States, Great Britain, Germany and France, Todd emphasizes the specificity of different types of family models. Speaking about the living together of the Algerian and French colonists in Algeria before 1962, compared with their cohabitation in France, Todd mentions that French culture is characterised by exogamy and bilaterality whereas Maghrebian societies prefer endogamy and patrilinearity.

III. Metamorphosis of a Myth and Necessity of Rethinking the Notion of Culture

On the other hand, though, Todd remarks that the willingness of Maghrebian immigrants in France to assimilate has weakened the differences between family models. This partly explains the way the myth of the Prodigal Son has replaced the Maghrebian character who revolts against the West. The transformations of the scenario conforms to images of the Other as they have appeared in this literature. There are no attributes designing the Other that are under change. It is seen, on the other hand, that the spatio-temporal factors modify the names behind this status-enhancing (developed or undeveloped) epithets.

The nature of such a change may be localised in the sense of displacements. They are determined by the link between the imaginary of both an observing and observed society. The upward movements are accompanied by an elevation towards nice weather and the felicity to live whereas an opening by a landing, as the 'arrival' of the parachutist in the first pages of the novel, would be a sign of a relation with a type of phobia according to Danel-Henri Pageaux's terminology.

In the late 1990s the Other is more and more the original culture, the Maghrebian imaginary, as seen by authors of multiple cultures. In this context, Daniel-Henri Pageaux argues: "there is no solution of continuity between a stereotype and a myth, when a stereotype turns into a narrative, into images and a scenario, marks the beginning of a myth." The fact that stereotypes developed by writers are accepted by a public calls our attention to an interdisciplinary problem. The issue of identity appears with a new face and makes the definition of culture an object of universal doubt.

We have seen that the fact that prejudice, which is -- according to Jean-Marc Moura -- a scenario composed of stereotypes embodying only the alter (the shallow, stereotyped level of the knowing the other) of the Other, and myths are composed of revalued stereotypes, which reach the level of the alius, presuming the interpretation of the Other based on real experiences and reflections. As a case in point, the Prodigal Son is the engineer Machin returning to Morocco from home, that is, Europe. In Driss Chraibi's memoirs the narratives make the definition of cultural identity ambiguous again. It is not obvious in which traditionally defined cultural imaginary the main protagonist can interpret the Other.

Serhane's bitter critique of the father's world also includes images coming from the Maghrebian Arabic-Muslim traditions, and, as an alius, the myth of the Prodigal Son is enriched with elements which question the possibility of defining the borders of the Maghrebian cultural imaginary. Therefore, what should the reader think of the three surviving sisters who come back to their father's coffin to hate this man, their own father, this Other, who chased his four daughters from home. Here, the sisters' fate corresponds to the scenario of the myth of the Prodigal Son and represents a collective imaginary, but not a cultural one any more.

If we follow Hans-Robert Jauss's reception theories, we can understand why the Maghrebian writers contest being categories assigned to them: they reject being classified as (a) a peripheral, or minority, literature, (b) as a French literature, or more often -- despite being a literature of immigration -- as (c) a Maghrebian one. If the Rebel Son could become an emigrant, and then 'prodigal', the above attributes cannot be attached at all to the creators of the myth and their audience. These attributes, being all born in an ideology, do not cover in authentic way a group of people having a common cultural imaginary.

Fouad Laroui uses hunour to make us depart from the once tragically lived problem of identity. In Chraibi's Vu, Lu, Entendu, the wise smile of the experienced writer makes us reconsider the starting point of the perception of the Other. Serhane -- without any humour -- makes the postcolonial opposition between West and East virtual by going back to the world of silence and immobility. Otherwise said, the myth of the Prodigal Son, starting from the conclusions of the cited works, will probably not follow the biblical scenario. Identification with a given culture will not be achieved without the existence of that given culture. It seems that the Prodigal Son will have no place to stay at home.


In fact, the emerging scenarios and narratives are all inscribed in a story of alienation, as conceived by Albert Memmi in Le Portrait du Colonisé précédé du Portrait du Colonisateur (1957). The legitimation of the images of the Other are executed through a process of acculturation and the search for identity. The authors, Dib, Alloula, Chraibi, Laroui, Serhane, are all spokesmen of the common consciousness that unites groups of humans. They get into contact with the real and imaginary world of the Other, go beyond stereotypes in stretching its signification: the notion of the Other gains an encyclopaedic sense by designing a symbolic universe.

The skeleton of these myths with different names remains the same. The passage to the myth of the Prodigal Son is marked by the metamorphosis of the Other and, consequently, put into question the definition of cultural imaginary. Certainly, we could see a certain familiarisation with the West (the fantasmatic words taken from the English language were multiplied; they, similarly, went even with reference to some illustrious names of the culture of the Other).

By Fouad Laroui the Moroccan parachutist symbolises the Moroccan culture from which the main protagonist feels so distant. At the end of his work engineer Machin recognises that the solution is to learn to love the Other, the terrible parachutist, who will never leave the engineer's home.

The introduction of the individual as a category cannot be, of course, an aim. The goal of my research has been to understand how in contemporary Maghrebian, especially in Moroccan French language literature, self-definition and the issue of the 'categorisation' of certain groups of people are refracted through a contemporary myth and its changes.


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Last modified: 2 June 2001