What if integrity and honesty cannot offer a decent life ?
What if, in a marriage, love is gone and is replaced by greed, remorse and routine ?
What if, tired of too much correctness, people decide to break free from themselves?
“I remember the first years when I was employed in an office working for the Equipment Seecretary. It was Hlima who had first suggested me to claim a commission for every file I would sign. It was one of our biggest fights. At first, I tried to tell explain her that corruption was a cancer that was eating away the country, and that my education, my moral principles, my consciousness were firmly opposed to this practice. She told me I wasn’t man enough! This time I laughed. She could not bear this and started to throw objects at me.” (p.27, ABR translation)
Mourad is a middle aged father of two, married to a woman he does not love anymore. An engineer working in a famous firm full of corrupt people, he is the only one holding to his moral principles. Nevertheless, his refusal to give in to the “attentions” his colleagues receive leaves him with only his salary, barely sufficient to grant his family a decent living. Mourad’s life revolves around his children, Karima and Wassit, and Hlima, his bitter wife only interested in wealth and social status. In his forties and in a moment of crisis, Mourad thinks of leaving his unsatisfying life and of becoming someone else.
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Broken Man reminds the reader of Kafka’s dark and absurd universe, in which the human soul is caught in a maze of deceit and injustice. Mourad is a modern Josef K., caught in his own life as in a prison from which he is too shy, too lazy or too honest to escape. The escalating rhythm of the narrative leads the reader from the honest family man to the tormented character who breaks all the rules… and risks everything.
Set in present day Morocco, Ben Jelloun’s novel criticizes corruption as a way of life, of working, of defining oneself; Mourad’s tragedy is that he is constantly studying different possibilities of staying who he is deeply, of keeping his identity no matter what. To this extent, the novel is actually a long self-questioning confession.
Is it, then, possible for a man to become the opposite of what he used to be, just for the sake of change? Is it possible to break free even from one’s identity and try to create another one, in another space and family context? And what are the risks of such an endeavor?
With these contradictory, daring, but deeply human questions Ben Jelloun’s novel challenges the reader and forces him to leave behind his own social and cultural background when he tries to make sense of them—and of all human dilemmas, for that matter.
The Broken Man by Tahar Ben Jelloun
Review by Ioana Danaila
Ioana Danaila was born in Romania. She graduated from University Lyon 2 Lumière with a Masters in Postcolonial Literature and a First degree in French for Non-Francophone people. She has published short stories and translated books from French to Romanian. She speaks Romanian, French, English, and Spanish and teaches English to high school students in France.