I finished The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, by Leїla Marouane, on a night when it was raining in Tallahassee, and the café where I had been reading was a warm balm effusing a yellow light of calm against a stormy sky. I closed the page and looked out the window to a steady drizzle dampening the deck of Blackdog Café. Beyond the deck, beyond the grassy yard where local farmers set up every Wednesday to sell soap, cheese, and vegetables, past the sidewalk and a slanted shoreline of rocks, Lake Ella’s broad gray body was swelling and threatening to flood. Even the rowdy ducks were nesting quietly in defense of the weather. I was stunned, not by ducks or rain, but by narrative. I stared across this wet dismal landscape, blinking and squinting, wondering if Marouane had just pulled off what I thought she had. I blushed at my naivété and rushed back to the beginning.
Marouane embraces a complicated, mysterious narrative in The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, her fifth novel. The first line of the novel begins with a point-of-view shift that is unsettling as it defies narrative logic by switching perspective within a single sentence: “It came over me all of a sudden, he said. I was at my desk,” [emphasis is mine] and the rest of the chapter continues in first person. Each chapter begins this way (for one sentence) with a mysterious third-person reference to the first-person narrator. I wondered what Marouane meant by this point of view shift, but then I was pulled into the larger narrative, ensconced in the world of a wealthy Algerian-French banker named Momo (short for Mohamed), whose narcissism and obsessive tendencies to fantasize sexual encounters rather than act them out was driving him to a mental, cultural, and familial split.
In Part One of this three-part novel, Momo extracts himself from his family, acquiring his own expensive apartment in an old and exclusive French neighborhood (on rue Saint-Placide), but he takes 113 pages to finally admit the move to his devoted Islamic mother. When asked if he is coming home for dinner, he lies and obfuscates. He ignores her calls. He says he is and doesn’t. I kept thinking, What is the big deal? And there, Marouane had exposed my Western cultural bias just as she intended.
Trying to comprehend the title “Dissidence” from Part One, I busily scribbled in the margins that in this section “an eldest forty-year-old brother in an Arab family living in Paris moves out of his mother’s apartment as a tremendous act of disobedience to both family and culture,” not truly understanding the significance of this act until the end of the novel, in Part Three, where our narrator’s mind splits because of the pressure of a dual cultural existence. It permeates his brain so deeply that he cannot function and, by the end, this mundane setup has exemplified Momo’s spiral away from reality. His mind makes its final break on that last page: “A moment later, I entered a world of fire and ice. Where wolves howl and men are silent.” My mistake was that I assumed the narrator was sane and similar to me. I had been reading as an American, a Westerner, who could not fathom the significance of separation from one’s family as a dissident act.
In America, leaving one’s parents is a mark of being an adult; it’s expected. Living with one’s mother, especially for a man in his forties, is a specific reason to cast suspicion on his ability to be an independent and responsible partner. In some kind of intercultural critique, Marouane is also criticizing this aspect of her own culture, demonstrating how the children of the immigrant families are torn culturally—and thus mentally—when their parents impose a cultural standard that grows obsolete in new cultural surroundings: “My freedom had no price, and I had ample means to live the way I intended to live from now on.” Having acquired a separate apartment, our narrator assures himself that he will not have to entertain his mother there:
“My mother, perpetually clinging. My mother, sticky as a makrout. My mother, sticking to her son. However, just as in the old days, when the women in the Kasbah never ventured into the European quarters, my mother never came to the center of Paris.”
One would think my experience dating a French-Arab man and visiting his family in Paris would have equipped me culturally to see and understand these differences— for example, how it is for an elder Arab male or how one brother might forgo marriage out of respect for an elder unmarried brother as Momo’s younger brother does—but it didn’t. Memories of cultural misunderstandings came flooding back from my time in France. In one, my boyfriend Khalil wanted me to attend a family wedding, but I had to be escorted by his sisters. I assumed this meant he really didn’t want me to go and didn’t want to offend me, so we argued. “I’d rather stay at the apartment,” I said. When his explanation made no sense, I concluded he was hiding something, so I stayed home. I felt crazy.
As the rain hit the café window and slid down the pane in crooked lines, I was patting my own back thinking about “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s demonstration of the slippery slope of the mind and all the ways I’d connect the two, but I couldn’t figure out why the novel in my hands, the one whose orange cover might look like a little fire in my lap from across the room, was an unsolved puzzle, and I wondered why the female Algerian novelist in Part Two who plays such a strange role in Momo’s life kept turning up loaning Momo books or listening to his sexual woes. How did she fit into the whole picture? When I reached the end, it hit me so hard I had to turn back, start at the beginning, and shoot through again, telling myself this is how it must have been for Gilman’s first audience. But Gilman’s mental unraveling is only one layer. Marouane accomplishes several more.
In Part Two, Marouane turns up the narrative magic. The Algerian novelist who is dubbed “Loubna Minbar” is likely an insertion of the author “Leïla Marouane” (same initials), who is also a novelist living in Paris. Loubna is connected to all the women for whom Momo fantasizes, as all seem to describe the same girl. The strange third-person reference at the beginning of each chapter is the signal that someone else is telling Momo’s story or that Momo’s telling of it is part of Loubna’s novel that Maroune is—of course—really writing. We find out that Momo also wants to write a novel, and Loubna is there to help him. Then Momo, in his paranoia, suspects that Loubna is stealing his lines, stealing his life, and writing a novel about him, and if you’re unsuspecting, as I was, you might miss the fact that the unreliable narrator is not just paranoid here. Our narrator has been throwing plot crumbs, planting them all along. For instance, Part Three opens with a quote from Loubna Minbar, “No books are committed without a motive,” and I should have been doinking my forehead and focusing. Marouane is writing with a motive!
At times, I wondered if an Arab man reading this male-narrated novel would cringe with incredulity or if the comically described sexual fantasies for French women were purposely designed to be irritating to a male reader or to purposely point to the true narrator, an Arab woman either teasing men or warning Arab men of European women: “Sure of her charm, or so I believed at first, this white woman with her malevolent gaze, who scorned my race and my little curls but revered my pay stubs and my Hugo Boss jacket, aspired to only one thing—to tie the knot, around my neck.” This made me wonder if the motive was to demonize or sexualize French women the way Arab women have sometimes been exoticized. Marouane could have several motives.
One possible hint to motive comes from Loubna, revealing how a male novelist had taken petty revenge on her when she criticized him in a review for using a female pseudonym when writing his crime fiction. Was Marouane demonstrating how she could take revenge in a novel? Was she demonstrating how irritating it was when male novelists wrote the sexual fantasies of women? Or when female novelists imagined how men coveted their penises, as in this example: “‘Oh really?’ I said, looking at my sleeping cock, which was enormous, it’s true, but absolutely immaculate, unburdened of its hair.” I wondered if Marouane inserted these lines as some kind of coded revenge, an act that warns, “We women can play this game too.”
Like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris ends with the realization that someone else has been telling Momo’s story all along, because the closing line uses third person like the opening lines: “A place where, he said to me, you have come to listen to me at last.” Momo has been telling his story to Loubna Minbar, who has, indeed, been writing about him. There is every indication that he has lost his mind. Here is his behavior near the end: “Through the spy-hole I saw the concierge, and with her my sister, the blessed one, and my heart skipped a beat. They have come to inform me of something inconceivable, I thought, struggling not to pass out. My mother in the hospital. Alone. Of sorrow. Already in the morgue.” With the arrival of his sister, we get a perspective that clarifies that everything is not as Momo says it is. He lies to himself, to us, to his family, and to the concierge. So with my brain doing flippy flops, I looked up from the novel and out to the gloom of a swollen gray lake, and I felt warmed, even sad, by the thought that inspires Momo to make his first fire in his fireplace after looking across the Parisian skyline and seeing “blueish plumes” rising above the roofs. Momo is living in a metaphoric hell, but hell can be many things. Independence, even from one’s own mind, is sometimes the only freedom one can take. That we all have in common. This hell, the novel seems to say, is the price that Momo will pay.