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the slick mindset

Corruption, by Tahar Ben Jelloun

He takes out a sheet of paper, and makes a list of resolutions: he will walk naturally, will stop smoking, will cut out TV, take up a sport (calisthenics or bicycling), keep a diary, and have a talk soon with the woman he’s been hoping to have an affair with. But as anyone who has attempted self-reform can attest, actual change is much more difficult than the decision to change.This is especially so in Mourad’s case because of the great change that is driving all his minor ones: he has decided, after much thought and agonizing, to stop being the honest and poor government functionary he’s always been.

No more for him the role as “a grain of sand” in a totally corrupt system, no more the role of impoverished husband and fearful father. From now on, he’ll conform; he’ll emulate his assistant, the unctuous and undereducated Haj Hamid; he will participate, after holding out for so long, in the elaborate system of bribes that has enriched many others in Morocco’s Ministry of Development. “It’s time,” he says, “to make up for the empty years and dry seasons when nothing was going on.” He is determined to “have the slick mindset of a corrupt man.” Sound familiar? This is a tale that could easily have been set in Lagos or Port Harcourt or Abuja.

The problem for Mourad is that even after he opens himself up to this life of monetary bliss, the thinking doesn’t stop. The agonizing only intensifies. At first, he only has to deal with his own doubts about this new way of life.

Certainly, the money makes him feel good: he can take his daughter on a daytrip to Tangier; he himself, once a penny pincher, can indulge at a moment’s whim in one of Casablanca’s finer dining establishments. But soon there are deeper complications.

Hlima, his harridan of a wife, suspects something is up. The object of his desire, the widow Najia, tells him she’s attracted to him only because he’s a rare honest man. And his subordinate at work, Haj Hamid, so helpful in the transition to corruption, becomes more difficult to read. Paranoia creeps in, and much of the action of the book is Mourad’s hysterical analysis of everything in his life.

Such is Tahar Ben Jelloun’s skill as a storyteller that the thoughts flow naturally into one another, and a compelling farcical web is woven out of one man’s hesitant foray into a life of greed.

What is perhaps most outstanding about this little book is the fluency and lightness of the authorial voice. It recalls, in the close attention it pays to the machinations of a single mind, Camus’ Meursault. But Mourad is no murderer, and his story is much more picaresque.

His mind sways from daydreams about wealth and amorous encounters, to the hard practicalities of getting himself out of each fix he stumbles into. Corruption is altogether harder on the nerves than he’d expected. He hides one stash of bills, given him as a bribe, in a copy of Heidegger’s Being and Time: it’s an apt piggybank for him: few other characters in recent fiction have been so assailed with existential doubt.

Corruption was originally published in French as L’Homme Rompu. The English translation, by Carol Volk, is supple and avoids cliché.

Tahar Ben Jelloun is well-known as a newspaper columnist in France, and has won both the Prix Goncourt (in 1987 for The Sacred Night) and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (in 2004, for This Blinding Absence of Light). He is an acute writer, and he doesn’t “blow grammar.” He deserves to be better known to African audiences. Perhaps this delightful and timely book will open his work to a new set of readers.

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