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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : A Moroccan Morality Tale--Without a Real Moral to It : CORRUPTION by Tahar Ben Jelloun , Translated from the French by Carol Volk ; The New Press $17.95, 136 pages

October 19, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

To show his solidarity with the banned Indonesian writer Pramoedya Toer, Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun has taken both his title and theme from Toer's 1954 novel, "Corruption." Such a thing might seem odd in the United States, where plagiarism gets whispered at the drop of a publishing lawyer's retainer. Yet what a dazzlingly free and logical tribute it is.

Already, in a prefatory note disclosing this gesture, Ben Jelloun has managed a novelist's task: to let us recognize ourselves, transformed, in a distant world. The remarkable thing about Ben Jelloun's "Corruption" is how quickly and unexpectedly it does transform us.

Initially we sympathize with Mourad, a hard-pressed Casablanca planning official, as he struggles to maintain his strict honesty despite a tiny salary, a demanding wife, two needy children and the broad hints of colleagues and superiors that he is a fool not to accept presents from the builders who come before him. Yet almost at once we find ourselves in a state of aching suspense over the possibility that Mourad will fail to bend, and make his life easier. Even before the author corrupts his hero, he has corrupted his readers.

It is a fine corruption. Ben Jelloun (winner of France's Goncourt Prize) is a writer of social and moral acuteness. It is a corruption of our Western logic; the kind of logic that, when we were 6, suggested that inasmuch as the world is round, the Chinese have got to be walking upside down. And when we were 8, a corroding doubt: Could it be we who are upside down?

Mourad, whom we meet taking a crowded bus home, wearing a shabby suit and worn-out shoes, and reckoning and re-reckoning his budget, is not a particularly sympathetic character. Known as "Man of Iron" at his office, he is treated by his boss and his cheerful subordinate, Haj--who, not so mysteriously, lives far better than he does--as solicitously as if he were suffering from a lamentable but curable social disease.

His wife, Hlimi, on the other hand, rages. Why can't he be sensible and get along like her own well-to-do family? Why must she live so badly; why does he insist on having no more than two children? "All you give me is an IUD and meat twice a week for dinner," she screams and throws things. Not in the least gentle, he pours water on her. Quenched, she sobs out touchingly that she cannot stand poor people.

Mourad is miserable; his daughter needs expensive treatment for asthma, and his son can get into a good school only if the right people are bribed. But how can someone who won't take bribes offer them? Perhaps, he ruminates with breathtaking illogic, Hlimi could try a bit of flirting. It's not that he is proud of himself. Two voices argue inside him; the one that counsels flexibility threatens to leave him for a richer, more expansive host and abandon him to the disagreeable nagging of his conscience.

His boss lectures him. The government knows that its officials are badly paid; it expects them to arrange their own indispensable luxuries. It's not really corruption but "a parallel economy." A rich friend chimes in: What Mourad calls a bribe is really a hidden tax that keeps the machinery oiled and running; without it, the economy would seize up.

Worn down by such patriotic counsels--the author lets us realize that the arguments are by no means hypocritical, and that in fact they describe a reality--Mourad succumbs. He gets one good lunch out of it and a momentary glimpse of a future away from Hlimi and with a cousin he has always loved. Then the complications set in. Taking a fat envelope from a builder opens the door to a whole new set of pressures, dangers and doubts.

Ben Jelloun holds the scales impassively; his protagonist teeters wildly upon them. If Mourad's future offers prospects of a smile instead of a sour grimace, the reality behind either one is iron teeth. Ben Jelloun has written more of a morality tale than a true novel--his characters have little flesh to them and Mourad is not a great deal more than a predicament--but he has no moral for it. Corruption is an evil to him; resistance a virtue. But the author has made us want for Mourad, as we might want for a child, a brother, a friend: deliverance from a virtue that society so dismally mistreats.

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