One of the joys of reading literature in translation is coming across new methods of storytelling and innovative aesthetic models that American authors today seem reluctant to attempt and that the vast majority of American publishers are loath to take on. It’s not only pleasurable to be told a story in an unexpected way, it is also important that we are constantly introducing ourselves to new models of narrative structuring and new possibilities for what constitutes artistic merit. International literature offers us aesthetic innovations in abundance, and for a handful of U.S. publishers, including Europa Editions (the New York-based branch of Italian house Edizioni E/O), discovering and importing novels that challenge traditional means of storytelling and accepted concepts of what good writing can be are at the heart of their mission. Case and point: Leila Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris.
His skin whitened, hair straightened, decked out in designer outfits and a “Frenchified” name, forty-year-old Algerian Islamist Basile Tocquard (formerly Mohamed Ben Mokhtar) is out to sever ties with his past, defy his domineering mother, extricate himself from the bonds of his upbringing, write volumes of enduring poetry, and become the Don Juan of modern day Paris. Mokhtar’s forays toward assimilation and sexual liberation are complicated by the nearly overwhelming guilt he feels as his acts of dissidence tear at his mother and family, but Mokhtar’s internal struggle is not his biggest obstacle, nor is it what really compels this novel. While cultural, psychological, social, religious, and inner-personal conflicts are at the story’s forefront, Leila Marouane (L. M.) makes it known that Mokhtar is not telling his tale directly to the reader but through a third party, a silent female intermediary whose hovering and somehow disapproving presence through the first half of the book has the reader anticipating the novel’s central conflict. The reader waits for the intermediary to present herself in the text, to confront Mokhtar about his dissidence and attempts to “have [his] way with as many women as possible.” But this is not exactly what happens.
The female-narrator arrives in the form of a series of women (all with their “eyes big and dark,” their “hair long and wavy”) whom Mokhtar tries and fails to sleep with. Each of his potential concubines refuses Mokhtar’s sexual advances on various pretexts, each has been intimately involved with a mysterious woman writer named Loubna Mitobar (L. M.), and each would prefer to relate her own tale of religious confusion instead of having sex. As their stories take up more and more of the page, Mokhtar’s frustration grows and his sexual preoccupation leads him to forget Ramadan, habitually drink and masturbate, and so forth. As his desperation to lose his virginity grows, Mokhtar’s actions become more obsessive, more repetitive, and so does the text. The mysterious Loubna Mitobar appears frequently and her influence over the novel is felt, though it’s unclear exactly who or what Mitobar is. Is she, in fact, the novel’s author (L. M.), a writer with an agenda, who has hijacked Mokhtar’s tale in order to chronicle the troubled stories of young women? Or is she all of Mokhtar’s potential lovers, a clever concierge who is out to frustrate and derail his plans? Or is she, as the title might suggest, a fictitious creation, an aberration of Mokhtar’s madness, which has been chronicled and released as a clinical study? And this is by no means an exhaustive list of possibilities, yet so light and adept is Marouane’s structuring and rendering of the novel that any could be true.
At the heart of The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris are questions of authority. On the textual level, the reader is asked to interrogate who has control over the novel. Who controls the reality we have inhabited? The dueling agendas—those of Mokhtar and Mitobar—create a vital tension you don’t often find a novel. It is impossible to imagine Marouane touching on such a wide variety of issues—cultural, sexual, ethnic, religious, psychological—without inventing some new form for it all to fit within. On a socio-cultural level, Marouane’s Paris is a city where skin tone can be changed at will, a person can conceal part of all of herself with a single decision, and appearances are not only deceptive in nature but also malicious. As the very book we are reading becomes an essential part of the story, a second level of engagement is introduced, and it’s this layering that lends the novel to a second read. Funny on its first read, Sexual Life is more delightful upon a second reading, as Marouane’s construction of its neat scaffolding stands out clearly and the reader can track the novel’s intricate development.
Alison Anderson, who has translated other Europa novels from the French, including The Elegance of the Hedgehog, applies her gentle touch to this translation.