Adam Shatz over at the NYRB:
When Driss Chraïbi’s The Simple Past (Le Passé simple) was published in 1954, it was as if an explosion had gone off in the small, old-fashioned mansion of North African literature. Everything that had been written about the Maghreb seemed to lie in ruins—not just exoticizing Western novels and travelers’ accounts, but also the few novels in French by North African writers. Even The Pillar of Salt (1953), Albert Memmi’s remarkable Bildungsroman about a Jewish boy growing up in Tunisia, looked quaint by comparison. Published two years before the end of France’s protectorate in Morocco, The Simple Past was a journey to the end of the colonial night, written with an intransigence and fury that Louis-Ferdinand Céline might have admired.
Chraïbi’s title was suggestive on several registers. The passé simple is a French verb tense used almost exclusively in formal writing, referring to actions that have been definitively completed, residing entirely in the past. In Chraïbi’s novel, the idea of a past entirely cut off from the present is held up to merciless critique. For Driss Ferdi, the young Moroccan who is the hero and narrator of the book, the past is an unbearable weight and an inescapable burden; it is a force of oppression and, sometimes, of evil.