In 1995, Mathieu Kassovitz won the best director’s prize at Cannes for La Heine, a film finely tuned to the violence in the Paris banlieus—suburbs that have become physical manifestations of the in-between identities of racial minorities, who are at once French but never French enough. While the film generated considerable brouhaha in France, Kassovitz became a familiar face abroad only in 2001 when he appeared as the anaemic boyfriend in Jeunet’s Oscar winning Amélie. In this fantastic transformation of gritty Paris into whimsical Montmatre, one is hard pressed to find maghrebis or black people despite the fact that the French capital hosts nearly forty percent of the country’s North African migrants. Amélie gives us a city of cafes and dreams, not a Paris that was seized by rioting in the banlieus in 2005. For that, we need to return to La Heine.
It helps to keep this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde narrative of Paris in mind when reading Leïla Marouane’s latest book to be translated into English: The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris. Marouane, an Algerian journalist, moved to France at age thirty, and for the last twenty years she has made her home in Paris. Her familiarity with this city and its banlieus comes through as she describes Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, the protagonist of this short novel, who lives in a dingier suburb of Paris with his morose younger brother and their overbearing mother while working a posh job in the city proper, the land of white French people.
Mohamed has the ability to slip fluidly between these two worlds because he has Frenchified his name to Basile Tocquard, bleached his skin, and straightened his hair over the years. Unlike his unemployed brother, who looks like an Arab, Mohamed has a high-paying job and sufficient funds in his bank account to afford a bachelor pad at a tony address. But at forty, Mohamed is still a virgin and is being pestered by his mother to take an Algerian bride. He flees his mother’s clutches to the city, determined to live out his sexual fantasies.
In Paris, however, Mohamed fails spectacularly at gorging himself on the earthly versions of the divine houris of Islamic paradise and instead begins dating one Algerian Muslim woman after another. They all are happy to go out to dinner with him and drink his wine, but not one is willing to satisfy Mohamed’s desire to lose his virginity.
The novel is presented as if Mohamed were relating it to an author with initials LM, a device that tests the reader’s patience even as we discover that he may be writing to a stand-in for Leïla Marouane, the author of this book, who is then telling us this story for her own reasons. Each time Mohamed attempts a new seduction, Marouane’s female characters escape sleeping with him by telling their stories. As with Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights, the author uses a man’s vice to promote women’s virtues.
But Marouane’s prose is livelier when Mohamed returns to the banlieu. At home with his mother, who bemoans the loss of “the-apple-of-her-eye,” and a younger brother, who is angry and jealous, Mohamed’s preoccupation with his own sexual needs begins to sound false. The rich lives of the family in the suburb stand in stark contrast to the minimalist bachelor pad in the center of the city. It is in these scenes that the novel comes to life; I could have read scores of pages about the Mokhtar family in their Paris suburb.
Instead, Marouane takes the novel down a different road, turning away from the narratives of Algerian women and life in the banlieu to reveal a creeping madness in Mohamed. The expensive fixtures of a bachelor’s apartment are dismantled as the novel draws to a close, and we find ourselves in a Parisian pad with walls painted green and floors covered in rugs and carpets as though it were a room in an Algerian home. Marouane’s vision for the end of the novel is an uneasy one, an act of translating an unhinged mind. As Kassovitz’s La Heine and Jeunet’s Amélie are irreconcilable visions of Paris, the identities of Basile Tocquard in the city and Mohamed Ben Mokhtar in the suburb prove incompatible in The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris.
Marouane’s novel was originally published in French and translated by Alison Anderson for this Europa Editions release. Translating Marouane presents linguistic and cultural challenges, and for the most part Anderson has succeeded. The English prose has a Gallic bent in parts, which clogs the fluid narrative: “…headed straight then branched off through the streets of my quartier…” or “Driving such an improbable outcome from my thoughts as quickly as I could….” On the other hand, the novel’s criticism of white-washing one self in order to Frenchify the other will likely resonate more with an English audience. In general, Anderson negotiates the difficulty of translating this novel with poise, and though parts of the novel remain difficult to follow, they are not, in this reviewer’s opinion, the translator’s to fix. Anderson has wisely resisted the temptation to explicate sections of the novel that Marouane uses to bedevil the reader. For this is a novel that defies neatness; it reveals rather than expurgates the maddening state brought on by living multiple lives in a culture that demands a single French identity.