Leila Marouane’s novel is the tragicomic story of a French man of Algerian origin who is trying to run away from his heritage. A forty-year-old virgin, he longs to escape from the dominating influence of his mother and become a Don Juan among women. A resident of one of the northerly suburbs of Paris, he succeeds in finding his dream apartment, “petit Versailles”, as he calls it, in the Saint-Germain neighborhood on the Left Bank. In his desperation to become assimilated into French mainstream, he has changed his name from Mohamed Ben Mokhtar to Basile Tocquard, a name with eerily prophetic resonances. Ha has also had his skin whitened and his hair straightened so as not to be victim of prejudices against his Algerian background. All his clothes are by designers, like Ralph Lauren. He drinks vintage Scotch because he thinks it smart, even if this goes against the commandments of his religion. He is able to finance all this because as a graduate of the Haute Ecole de Commerce he holds a high-paying position as a bank executive.
The problem is that he is unable to realize any his other dreams. Despite some bizarre relationships with a few women, he remains a virgin, unable to escape from the cycle of autoeroticism and have a genuine physical relationship with a woman. Moreover, although his goal is to have affairs with women of European ethnicity, all his lady loves are other Muslims with hang-ups about their heritage similar to his. In addition, he suffers from an inner conflict about his faith. He claims to have renounced his childhood beliefs, yet he is plagued by an uneasy conscience over this renunciation. Devout during his youth, he remains very knowledgeable about the Islamic faith. He is tormented by guilt about the heartbreak he is visiting upon his adoring mother, who always calls him the apple of a eye, and his admiring younger brother, who had considered him a role model of piety. Because of this moral division and his continual romantic failures, he begins to plunge into a downfall. He lives on alcohol and cigarettes, and sleeping pills, and his cherished new home becomes a dump. He progressively loses his mind. He becomes obsessed with the paranoid idea that he is being persecuted by an Algerian-French female writer named Loubna Minbar and that she is using his life as a raw material for a new book. Despairing at the absurdity of his existence and his growing hallucinations, he tries to go back to his old life and beliefs. He announces he will marry a woman from Algeria chosen by his mother and take the whole family on a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Unfortunately, theses resolutions come too late. Although the ending of the novel is abrupt, one surmises that his family has had him taken to an insane asylum. The entire narrative is written in the first person by the protagonist, but each chapter has in its first line a phrase like “dit-il”. This indicates that he is recounting his life story to a second person. At moments, directly addresses the lady novelist with whom he is obsessed. The reader guesses that the whole novel consists of the narrative he is telling to his therapist at the asylum, whom in his delusions he takes to be Lounba Minbar. In the end, this forty-year-old virgin, who had aspired to become the playboy of the western world, transcends the comic potential of his situation to meet a tragic fight, similar to that of Blanche Dubois. This is a moving and eloquent work that explores with great sensitivity complex social, ethnic, religious, and psychological issues. Marouane presents a world where there are no easy answers.
By James P. Gilroy