[(essay date October 1994) In the following essay, Mehta explores how Ben Jelloun relates the immigrant experience through the eyes of his female protagonist in Les Yeux baissés.]
Immigration and its psycho social ramifications constitute a recurrent theme in contemporary Maghrebian fiction written in French. The literary esthetics of Boudjedra (Topographie idéale pour une agression caractérisée), Charïbi (Les Boucs), Feraoun (La Terre et le sang), and Ben Jelloun (La Réclusion solitaire), among others, have focused on the annihilating effects of immigration on the individual's search for selfhood in an alien country. Systematically marginalized, dispossessed, and devitalized by the constraining politics of the host country with respect to its immigrant populations, the immigrant is soon found to be a prisoner of alterity, trapped in the specular logic of the Other. The unilateral nature of specular representation is based on the principles of negativity, exclusion, and closure within a repressive and restrictive system. To reflect this specularity, in an attempt to deflect its specificity, the Maghrebian novel on immigration situates itself within the parameters of a tragic poetic-realism which provides different levels of meaning. Serving as a palimpsest to project the writer's preoccupation with the complexities of immigration as a device for literary production on one hand, it is at the same time inscribed in a deeply rooted social reality based on observation and careful documentation. The interplay of fact and fiction becomes a major narrative device punctuated by a progressively symbolic, quasi-hallucinatory style, interspersed with passages that reflect the actual reality of North African immigrants in France. This multi-layered level of consciousness, aimed at uncovering or positing certain universal truths concerning the condition of immigrants in the host country, becomes a strategy for bridging the gap between the irreconcilable, the conflicting cultural, social, political, and religious ideologies of the resident alien and the citizen.
The immigrant's story begins with an outward-bound quest in search of a new order capable of transcending existing patterns of being. The transformative journey of the immigrant necessitates the acquisition of a particular vision aimed at destabilizing the status quo to create a new space (this "troisième lieu" evoked by Ben Jelloun in Les Yeux baissés), where that person can function as an autonomous agent, independent of homeland and adopted land. In other words, the immigrant embarks on a neo-mythic quest of self-actualization, an important search for self, or, an uncovering of a new self in a three-dimensional space which lies beyond the transcendence of the traumatic experiences of immigration and the effective assimilation of the new culture. This quest is a complicated and arduous one, involving a losing battle against the unilateral nature of effective assimilation which disfavors the immigrant through an absorbing of mental and physical capacities, leaving him or her in an existential vacuum.
To the best of my knowledge, most of the Moroccan novels of and on immigration have dealt with the trials and tribulations of the hero's efforts to assimilate and forge a new identity in France....