‘Everything seemed normal, but nothing is normal when the lion is on its knees and its claws have become useless splinters of wood; when the dying fire in its eyes inspires more pity than fear; when its gaze has turned inwards to the depths of its defeated body…’

This brief elegant novel has a deceptively innocent opening but the rich warm tones and beguiling storytelling are a lure, this is a seductive illusion. The King’s Fool soon hints at darker undertones before fully revealing the true gravity of the tale – life in the service of a despot means complicity in his deeds, there’s a price to pay.

The love of a court official for his dying master is at first touching but there’s a sense that Mohamed, the narrator, is skirting the truth in his ruminations on his relationship with King Hassan II. Eventually we meet the tyrant, the autocrat who ruled Morocco for nearly forty years from 1961. Mohamed ben Mohamed, court jester, literary consultant and theological scholar, solicits sympathy with his descriptions of the contorted suffering of the dying king, the man simply referred to as Sidi, (master).

The two men march across the courtyard of the royal palace, one bowed in supplication the other in torment. Sidi has sensed something is wrong in the palace, even though he is wracked with pain he searches for it. A slave is rifling his vast treasure store, a room full of gifts received at parties and functions over the years. Mohamed is silent, waiting for the king’s reaction to the man looting his wealth to gage the correct response. The fellow hasn’t the good taste to at least wait until Sidi is dead before picking over his bones. The king is a capricious man, the slave could be executed for this, but this night it amuses him to let the fellow go, swag in hand. Mohamed joins in a gentle mocking of the bewildered thief as they watch him flounder. Make no mistake, if the guards catch him his punishment will be brutal. Then Mohamed tells us he is an unlikely aid to a king, he makes much of his humble origins;

‘I, Mohamed ben Mohamed – the scum of Marrakesh’s rancid effluence, the least likely man ever to have rubbed shoulders with the elite, an escapee from the deepest sewers of humanity…’

Again the implication is of a benevolent king, willing to trust Mohamed, (the ordinary), but there isn’t an ounce of egalitarian spirit at this court and the cost to Mohamed for this long held patronage, and for the king’s confidence, is high indeed.

Mohamed jealously guards the privileged position of king’s chief advisor. He is envious of the little blond daughter loved by the king, the child is indulged and capable of distracting Sidi from the adult company around him. But the evenings belong to Mohamed. He has become expert in artifice, in befriended the courtiers who matter. His exalted position has been attained by virtue of his phenomenal memory. Mohamed has perfect recall but as this enables him to remember conversations, almost every moment with the king, we come to realise this blessing is also a curse. Beneath the courtly manners, fine food, lavish events and the jesting, lies a dark truth about the regime, the life of the country strangled and stifled by the abuse of power.

Mohamed is an extremely observant narrator, his accounts of the king’s life are perceptive and colourful. He is a proud man, intelligent, a connoisseur of the best nature and humanity has to offer but he is deluding himself as he tries to delude us. This story is intensely personal and very simply told but it encompasses the colonial legacy, the life of a despot, the moral vacuum of power and madness of deifying a ruler. What appears full is actually empty and devoid of its humanity. The court’s priorities are skewed; humiliation at the hands of the king the ultimate defeat for any member of the entourage, the king’s ire is to be navigated around at all costs. The King’s Fool is a reflection on the terrible price Mohamed pays for his loyalty. It’s also a musing on guilt and forgiveness. A powerful little tale that is quietly but persistently troubling.

The King’s Fool has been translated from the French by Ben Faccini, (le Fou du roi, 2017). Mahi Binebine is a painter and writer, his art is exhibited at the Guggenheim in New York. His brother was part of a failed coup against King Hassan II in 1971 and spent eighteen years in the notorious Tazmamart desert prison, (the inspiration for This Blinding Absense of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun).

The King’s Fool by Mahi Binebine
MacLehose Press, hardback, 6th August 2020, ISBN 9780857058256

Review by Paul Burke