Archive for the ‘France’ Category
This was first published at the National.
The true subject of science fiction is always the present. Its imagined futures are mirrors to today’s hopes and fears. George Orwell’s “1984” simply shifted the numbers of the year in which he wrote the book – 1948 – and made a metaphor of that time’s dark politics. Likewise “2084”, the latest from Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, is addressed to, and in some way is part of, very contemporary woes.
Sansal lays out a fantastically detailed dystopia in complex and often elegant prose. After the Great Holy War killed hundreds of millions, an absolutist theocracy has been founded by Abi the Delegate, servant of the god Yolah. Abi’s rule is secured by such institutions as the Apparatus and the Ministry of Moral Health, and displayed by frequent mass slaughters of heretics in stadia built for the purpose. The nine daily prayers are compulsory. Women must cloak themselves in thick ‘burniqabs’.
Dissent, individuality, and progress have been abolished. The future must be a strict replica of the past. All languages are banned save the state-invented ‘Abilang’.
Ati, the story’s vague hero, is sent to a sanatorium in the mountains to cure his tuberculosis. Here he hears rumours of a nearby border, a limit to Abi’s reign. The notion “that the world might be divided, divisible, and humankind might be multiple” sparks a crisis of doubt in him, and then a journey of discovery.
At times “2084” suffers from science fiction’s most common pitfall: an unwieldy listing of technical or political information describing the imagined world outweighs and obscures the necessary human information. Sansal’s characters are somewhat two-dimensional, and the plot can seem almost accidental.
It is best, therefore, not to read this as a conventional novel but as a mix of satire, fable, and polemic.
This was my review for the Guardian of Riad Sattouf’s graphic memoir.
The graphic novel has proved itself over and over. It already has its classical canon: Spiegelman on the Holocaust, Satrapi on girlhood in Islamist Iran, and (perhaps most accomplished of all) Joe Sacco’s ‘Footnotes in Gaza’, a work of detailed and self-reflexive history. Edging towards this company comes Riad Sattouf’s ‘The Arab of the Future’, a childhood memoir of tyranny.
Little Riad’s mother, Clementine, is French. His father, Abdul-Razak, is Syrian. They meet at the Sorbonne, where Abdul-Razak is studying a doctorate in history. Those with Arab fathers will recognise the prestige value of the title ‘doctoor’. But Abdul-Razak is more ambitious. He really wants to be a president. Studying abroad at least allows him to avoid military service. “I want to give orders, not take them,” he says. When humiliated, he sniffs and rubs his nose.
Abdul-Razak is a pan-Arabist who believes the people (“stupid filthy Arab retards!”) must be educated out of religious dogma. For reasons of both vanity and ideology he turns down an Oxford teaching post for one in Libya. The family takes up residence in a flat which doesn’t have a lock, because Qaddafi has ‘abolished private property’. Little Riad sees Libya all yellow, its unfinished buildings already crumbling. He sings the Leader’s speeches with kids in the stairwell and queues with his mother for food (only eggs one week, just bananas the next).
A very slightly different version of this review was published at the Guardian.
Tahar Ben Jelloun is a Moroccan who has contributed a series of important works to French literature, perhaps foremost amongst them the brilliant ‘non-fiction novel’ of incarceration “This Blinding Absence of Light”. His latest novel, “The Happy Marriage”, bears echoes of Tolstoy’s grim relationship-degeneration tale “Happy Ever After”, but Jelloun’s tale is thrown into question by a counter-narrative.
Our protagonist is semi-paralysed, recovering from a stroke, his face twisted like a Francis Bacon painting. He is a successful artist, a demanding perfectionist who now struggles to move his fingers while watching TV athletics and thinking about tightrope walking. His contextual musings on deterioration and dependency – “When your life is in someone else’s hands, is it still a life?” – form a suitable backdrop to his memories of a two-decade marriage, in Paris and Casablanca, in sickness and health.
Part One (called, with a nod to Truffaut, The Man who Loved Women Too Much) is the artist’s own carefully-crafted account, in third person. The accomplishment of the writing here recalls Philip Roth’s more sober moods, or Saul Bellow’s studies of older men suffering the humiliations of body and soul. The psychological depth, high-cultural detail, sometimes even the dense but fluid prose (ably translated by André Naffis-Sahely) are reminiscent of that American master.
This review was published at the Guardian.
“Arab Jazz” – already the winner of the English PEN award – is a brilliant debut, both from Karim Miské and the very capable translator Sam Gordon.
The setting – “between the Lubavitch school complex, the Salafist prayer room and the evangelical church” in north east Paris, home turf of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killers – couldn’t be more topical.
And Ahmed Taroudant, the novel’s main protagonist, is in some respects a typical French Arab – religiously non-observant, confused about his identity, haunted by the past, and now set up to take the blame for murder.
Immensely likeable despite his neuroses, Ahmed aims “to lose himself by devouring the whole world in a single, uninterrupted story written by others.” The metaphor fits fundamentalists perfectly, but in Ahmed’s case it’s more literal: he’s a crime fiction fanatic who tries to buffer himself from reality with a wall of books. He’s reading on his balcony when blood drips down from the corpse of his upstairs neighbour Laura, whose love he might have reciprocated had he been clear-headed enough to notice.
Ahmed, of course, wants to understand what’s happening. He’s the book’s third detective; the first two are Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot, an atheist Ashkenazi Jew from the neighbourhood and a Breton of Communist heritage; both, like Ahmad, are well versed in crime fiction, and both are “intellectual, cinephile types”. Karim Miské, the French-Mauritanian author, is a film-maker himself; his book is crammed with genre, literary and film references. One scene is set in ‘Chaim Potok high school’, for instance; the title alludes to James Ellroy’s novel “White Jazz”; and – as if the book were already a film – there’s a playlist of songs at the back.
The characters are strong and various, from the young, second-generation Muslim and Jewish north African immigrants – the girls generally better adjusted than the boys – through such predictable figures as a Turkish kebab-shop proprieter and a Portuguese concierge, to the more surprising – an Armenian anarchist, for instance, or a Hasidic Rastafarian who produces a messianically-sanctioned MDMA-variant called Godzwill.
There’s an implicit commentary here on the new phenomenon of gangster-Salafism: “craving the validation of others … they were frequently tempted to reverse the feeling of stigma, to brand themselves proudly with the very religion which brought them such relentless contempt.” But the implicit critique of religion itself – of “those who clog up their depths, their inner space, with the concrete of certainty” – extends to political and social certainties too. Everyone’s been damaged by their heritage; everyone’s vulnerable to inner darkness and the explanatory narcotic of grand narrative.
“Arab Jazz” is a genre novel in the same way that “Pulp Fiction” is a genre film – superceding the form even as it pays homage. It’s a trans-continental identity novel, dramatising the painful contradictions and fertile syntheses of contemporary multicultural life, focussing on racial discrimination in Morocco as well as Paris. And it’s certainly a well-achieved literary novel, detailed with colours, tastes and flavours, sustaining a light and energetic comic tone even when the material is unrelentingly grim.
The settings are particularly rich, as Miské journeys confidently from his prime location as far as Crown Heights, Brooklyn, or to New York’s Watchtower, global HQ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and back and forth in time.
The dialogue can be somewhat clumsy, occasionally rendering the plot machinery too visible and the characters too obviously functional. In general there’s a little too much telling rather than showing – in the improbably self-revealing monologues of the police’s interviewees, for example, or the perfectly overheard street sermonising. Perhaps, as a detective story, the novel suffers a glut of too-easily-flowing information. This may irritate some genre readers, but it should be forgiven. “Arab Jazz” should be read charitably as a pushing beyond realism rather than a failure to achieve it. There’s something theatrical in Miské’s world; it’s as if the detective-readers witness performances, or discover texts, instead of teasing out meaning from an inscrutable and intransigent reality. Miské is a writer enjoying himself, playing on his scales, improvising sometimes, his subplots and walk-on acts fed deftly into the whole. The monologues are instrumental solos; the rhythms are propulsive. Like jazz, it’s complicated, but sounds beautifully simple.
This was written for the National.
Disturbing a sleeping box of old cassettes the other day, my hand brushed an album by Chab Hasni, and memories rushed in as fluent as music, of the Algerians I’d known in Paris in the early nineties, particularly my friends Qader and Kamel.
In Algeria these two had been ‘hittistes’. That’s a real Algerian word: a French ending tacked onto the Arabic ‘hayit’ meaning ‘wall’. The hittistes were the youths who spent their time leaning against walls, bored, angry, and stoned. They had no jobs and no housing – those young men who did have jobs often slept in their workplaces. They spent their time dodging the fearsome police force.
Life as ‘clandestin’ illegal immigrants in France was not much easier. There too they had to negotiate checkpoints. I remember Kamel spending a fortnight in prison for being stopped ‘without papers’. When at liberty, they peddled hashish on Pigalle and sold the cassettes they lifted from shops. (Still, there was honour amongst thieves. Qader once knocked down a fellow Algerian for stealing from an old man on the metro. “So what if he’s French?” he growled. “He could be your grandfather!”)
In “The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain”, Arun Kundnani writes, “Racisms are no longer domestically driven but take their impetus from the attempt to legitimise a deeply divided global order. They are the necessary products of an empire in denial.”
European empires did sometimes construct railways and drainage systems in the conquered lands. They did build law courts and disseminate a certain kind of cuture. But these questionable achievements must be understood against the larger ugly backdrop. Economies under imperial rule stagnated at best. Huge swathes of Africa were transformed from subsistence agricultural land to cashcrop plantations. When the value of the crop plummetted, or when the crop was grown more cheaply elsewhere, local people were left hungry and unskilled on exhausted soil. Africa has still not recovered from this deliberate underdevelopment. During British misrule, preventable famines killed tens of millions of Indians. Elsewhere in the empire, hundreds of thousands were forced into concentration camps, and torture was institutionalised. There were the genocides of indigenous Australians and Americans, by massacre and land theft as well as by disease. There was the little matter of the transatlantic slave trade.
The ethnic-sectarian tensions and political backwardness of much of the third world have roots in imperial power games. For instance, when the 1857 Indian uprising against the British was put down, the British developed a policy of excluding Muslims from education and economic power. A divide and rule strategy to exacerbate pre-existent Hindu-Muslim tensions was implemented precisely because the revolution had shown a remarkable degree of Indian national unity. And, as usual, traitors were rewarded. The twenty two families that rule what is now Pakistan (staffing the military high command and both major political parties) are the landowning families that ‘acquired’ their land in return for loyalty to the occupiers during the colonial period, especially in 1857.
Segolene Royal has been much criticised for warning that the French ‘banlieu’ will riot if Sarkozy, the interior minister who called banlieu inhabitants ‘racaille’ (‘scum’), is elected president. The banlieu is prone to riot anyway. Why?
Well, here are a few personal anecdotes. The stories are 15 years old, so are not directly relevant to Sarkozy, but they explain something of the racist background to France’s social problems.
One: One evening in Paris I was walking with an upper-middle class English friend whose mother is Malaysian. I’m an English Arab, but white-skinned and blue-eyed. Out of nowhere arrived two policemen. With no warning they grabbed my friend, threw him against a wall, then pushed a truncheon against his throat until he was choking and weeping. They took me round the corner and asked why I was walking with him.