France: a fine line

I heard about this book through a class I’ve been attending on free speech and translation, run by English PEN. The final session was set to involve a visit from translator Sarah Ardizzone (née Adams), who was going to talk about how she worked with writer Faïza Guène’s heavily inflected, Moroccan-street-slang-laden French to create the English version of the novel Just Like Tomorrow.

The work piqued my interest for another reason too: having read Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris for my Algerian book, I was curious to see how another novel set in the French capital’s North African community but this time written by a French-born author might compare to it. Would reading this book help me to draw that ever more elusive line between where one country’s literature stops and another’s begins?

Just Like Tomorrow follows 15-year-old Doria as she copes with life on the city’s grim Paradise estate. Her father has recently left her mother for a younger wife in Morocco and the two women now live on the bread line, depending on the income from Doria’s mother’s precarious cleaning job and their own abilities to make do and mend. Caught between the disapproval of their conservative neighbours and the shallow complacency of a series of social workers, Doria has nothing but her wit and verve to keep her from becoming just another statistic on the French authorities’ books.

Sadly, Sarah Ardizzone was unable to make the class, which was a shame because it would have been fascinating to hear about the process by which she converted Guène’s prose into a sort of light Jafaican (or Multicultural London English as it’s more formally known). Translating dialects can be tricky at the best of times – and a questionable decision can be very distracting – but here Doria’s narrative voice, peppered with ‘innit’s, ‘you get me’s and ‘back in the day’s, is thoroughly engaging and believable. The only sticking points come occasionally in the form of cultural references, which veer between British romance author Barbara Cartland (unlikely to be known to many urban teenagers), TV programme The Price is Right and French gameshow Fort Boyard, as though final decisions about the framework of Doria’s translated world haven’t quite been made – although these may have been carried over from the original.

The success of the voice is central to the book, because it is Doria’s wry, fearless, fresh vision and killer putdowns that make the novel. So much so, that I’m struggling to choose which of the many great oneliners to share with you. There’s the cashier who is ‘so flat you could fax her’, the absent father now known to his daughter as ‘Mr How-Big-Is-My-Beard’, and, perhaps my favourite of all, Doria’s succinct explanation of the Arabic term ‘insh’Allah’:

‘She played that wild card, AKA ‘insh’Allah’. It doesn’t mean yes or no. The proper translation is “God willing”. Thing is, you never find out if God’s willing or not…’

The humour, however, never clouds our vision of the hardships Doria and her mother face. If anything, it enhances the picture by making us indignant that such vibrant individuals should be forced to endure the sneers of snobs and racists, the harsh treatment of shady employers and the patronisation of officials. Guène brings this home through a series of small, yet telling scenes – such as Doria’s struggle to scrape enough money together to pay for sanitary towels at the local shop’s checkout and her recollection of the day she unwittingly went to school in a second-hand pyjama top, bearing the English phrase ‘Sweet Dreams’.

Does her perspective on Paris differ from the attitude of Marouane’s protagonist to the city? Well, perhaps, in as much as he might be described as being on the fringes of French culture looking longingly in at what he thinks he sees, while Doria is very much in the thick of the less-than-perfect reality.

Such questions seem to pale into insignificance, however, in the face of the fact that this is simply a fabulous, and thoroughly engaging book. Its portrait of a divided society, full of contradictions, tensions and hope will enthrall, challenge and resonate with readers – wherever they are in the world.

Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe kiffe demain) by Faïza Guène, translated from the French by Sarah Ardizzone (Definitions, 2006)

Algeria: the truth within

As titles go, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris has to be one of the most controversial out there. In fact, I got quite a few stares when I was reading this book on the Tube (no mean feat when you consider the sights you see on the East London line most days of the week).

One of the most anxious stares came from a young, blonde woman, who, when she saw me looking at her, switched on the radiant smile of the evangelical Christian. This impression was strengthened when the seat next to her became free and I sat down and saw that the title of the chapter she was reading was ‘The Lavish Grace of God’. All through the journey, I thought I could feel her twitching beside me, ready to pounce and tell me the good news.

However, if my neighbour had read the book, she would have found that there is a surprising lack of sex in much of it, albeit not for want of trying on the part of the protagonist. Having reached his fourth decade, Algerian-born banker Basile Tocquard, who ‘Frenchified’ his name as part of his attempts to shrug off North Africa and embrace Western culture, feels it is high time he moved out of his mother’s home and set himself up in a bachelor pad in the centre of town. There, he envisages, he will quickly dispense with his virginity and embark on a sexual odyssey among the city’s Caucasian goddesses.

He has reckoned without two things though: the powerful pull of his Islamic heritage, and the barriers in his own head. In addition, Basile’s story is related by a contemptuous female narrator, who makes fine capital out of the gap between his fantasies and the reality. As the novel progresses and Basile becomes increasingly deluded and paranoid, she strips his ambitions bare, revealing the contradictions and hollowness within.

Leïla Marouane is an exceptional writer, with a gift for making words pay their way. Every detail counts, from Basile’s ‘whitening creams and hair straightening sessions’ to the ‘poetry manuscripts’ he locks away in his desk drawer, building a rich picture that is at once funny, true and sad. This literary economy extends to the way that Marouane insinuates her female narrator into the text: at first sketched in only at the start of chapters and in the occasional footnote, but gradually making her presence felt everywhere.

Although the narrative is rooted in the clash between Islamic and Western culture, it is packed with universal insights about the attempts of younger generations everywhere to break away from what has gone before. As Basile sinks into madness in his efforts to deny his origins, the book excavates the foundations of identity, revealing the uneasy bargains we must all strike, whether between one culture and another or between the present and the past.

Inner peace, it seems, depends on an honest engagement with who we are and what we have been — sentiments with which I suspect my East London line neighbour would have heartily agreed. But then, who knows what her book was really about anyway?

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane (translated from the French by Alison Anderson). Publisher: Europa Editions (2010)