In his only essay, Guy de Maupassant stated that the role of the realistic novelist “is not to tell a story, to amuse us or to appeal to our feelings, but to compel us to reflect, and to understand the darker and deeper meaning of events.” The arrival of history written as entertaining literature was spun out of German Romanticism – in coincidence with the emergence of the novel and its fixation on “events.” The confidence of the novel is expressed through its garrulous definition of our place in a history yielding to our manipulations, and through its belief that nothing in our presumably self-made lives is trivial. The countervailing anxiety of the novel is its fear that history is an abyss, our lives are vaporous and our habits nugatory.
Custodians of events, novelists are susceptible to seduction by their wards. “The darker and deeper meaning of events” may be pronounced in a novel but lack resonance or nuance. Amara Lakhous seems to be acutely aware of this trap and skirts it through the control of lively tone. His third novel, Divorce Islamic Style (Divorcio all’islamica a viale Marconi), bears down on topical issues, especially the complexities of Muslim identity in a multicultural environment, in this case among immigrants to Italy. But it is comedic to its core, immediately chummy, making an unabashed appeal for understanding and compassion.
The year is 2005, the Madrid bombings are recent news, and the Italian military believes that 50 kilos of Goma-2 explosive have been delivered to terrorists in Rome. Two alternating voices narrate the story. First, there is the Sicilian-born Christian Mazzari, the son of Tunisian immigrants, an educated court interpreter newly recruited by Italian security. Posing as a job-seeking Tunisian named Issa, Christian infiltrates the Muslim neighborhood on the Viale Marconi, the hub of which is a call center and general hang-out location named Little Cairo. And then, there is Safia, a practicing Muslim who (with her daughter Aida) has followed her husband to Rome from Egypt in 2003. Safia is called Sofia by her Italian friends.
The son of Berbers, Lakhous was born in Algiers in 1970 where he studied philosophy and worked for Algerian radio. Fluent in French from an early age (and thus able to mediate between his Algerian and French relatives), he names Flaubert, Mahfouz and Hemingway as his early influences. In 1995, he left Algeria, as did many of his colleagues, in the wake of death threats. He has lived in Rome ever since and was awarded the prestigious Flaiano Prize for his 2008 novel Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.
His troubles had escalated during his final months at Algerian radio after he reported on the topic of male dominance in Algerian society. In Divorce Islamic Style, he rubs it in. Spiced with personality, Sofia’s outspoken monologues provide most (but not all) of the novel’s humor and flare. She aspires to be a hairdresser and practices her trade in secret at the house of a friend in Rome. In her first speech, she talks about her Egyptian family:
“The most one can expect from a girl: a fledgling mother! All in order, nothing to worry about, the little girl is growing up in full obedience to tradition. A neighbor in Cairo, Uncle Attia, said, ‘Daughters are like hand grenades – it’s best to get rid of them in a hurry!’ If anyone asked how many children he had, he would always say, ‘Three boys, four hand grenades (to settle somewhere, inshallah), and two atomic bombs (one unmarried and one divorced).’ Is it a coincidence that the word ‘bomb’ in both Italian and Arabic is feminine? … Our society doesn’t love women and above all doesn’t tolerate ambition in them. My grandmother always urged us, her beloved granddaughters, ‘Don’t get a swelled head, always fly close to the ground.’ And if someone ventures to fly high? The family will take care of breaking her wings. Ruthlessly. First rule of survival: avoid competition with males …”
Anxious to succeed for Italy while attuned to the plight of immigrants, Issa narrates most (but not all) of the novel’s suspenseful action. The reader follows him through Viale Marconi. But as with Sofia, Lakhous develops Issa as a candid character through whom media-driven notions of Muslims are converted into particulars that complicate and humanize. Issa says, “Muslims are real male chauvinists, openly homophobic. While we Italians, sly as usual, are friendly toward gays and women but underneath we’re – hypocritically – chauvinist.”
Divorce Islamic Style is ultimately Sofia’s story. Desperate to shake off her husband, she reports her troubles to her female Muslim friends: “I call Giuila and Dorina. I tell them the new episode of the soap opera Divorce Islamic Style in the Viale Marcona. They show up in twenty minutes. They are fond of me. I summarize the facts yet again. As we Arabs say, ’iaada ifada, repetition is beneficial.’ Dorina takes the opportunity to vent and take a weight off her mind: ‘Men are bastards, period. They’re bullies. Castrate them all. They’re all shits!” Giuila, on the other hand, argues against marriage as an institution. She summarizes her theory with the maxim ‘There would be no divorce without marriage.’ Then she urges me to regain my freedom as a woman. ‘Sofia, now you should throw out those male traditions and take off that damn veil.’”
The novel may not be a soap opera script, but it does employ the episodic pace and snappy dialogue of one, and after all it is a love story, at least in the making. Sofia listens to RAI and hears two experts discussing Islamic terrorism, one of whom says, “The root of the evil is inherent in an Islam that is psychologically violent and historically marked by conflict. The real problem is that Muslims don’t know what love is.” But the story of Issa and Sofia echoes Pietro Germi's 1961 film "Divorce Italian Style" for a reason. The novel draws in and critiques an entire world, including Al Jazeera (watched all day at Little Cairo) and CNN, through the sieve of romance. Both Issa and Sofia come in contact with (and are harassed by) a Signor Haram (and his hectoring wife who cautions Sofia about displeasing one’s husband), a local butcher who assumes the role of Sheikh Rami and issues various fatwas. Is he the one organizing the suspected terror plan? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, as the speakers pick apart the rutted fundamentalisms in search of moderated freedom, their chances seem fragile.
“Here is the root of the problem,” says Sofia. “A woman’s interpretation of the Koran still doesn’t exist.” The deep and darker meaning of this fact is the racing heart of Divorce Islamic Style.