A Muslim man struggles with culture and identity in the City of Lights in this urbanely complex study by Algerian feminist writer Marouane (The Abductor, 2001, etc.).
The novel opens with a man anxious about renting an apartment in the stylish Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood of Paris, offering up glimpses of his self-seeking personality. “I walked over the wide open door to the balcony, and once again had the impression I was in a film,” he tells us. “Would I be the hero, or just a mere extra?” This man has reinvented himself as Basile Tocquard, a wealthy bank manager with bleached skin and good suits. We soon learn his true identity as Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian born in Maghreb who has, as he puts it, “Frenchified” himself. “I was the good Muslim, the kind Islamist—nowadays we would say ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘terrorist’—who was respected and solicited for advice by the entire neighborhood,” he reveals. But this unlikely leading man is on a self-indulgent streak. He is a virgin determined to bed as many women as possible; a son devoted to unshackling himself from his mother’s authoritarian advice; and a budding hedonist enjoying the finer things that Paris has to offer. It’s not long before it’s apparent that something is amiss with Tocquard’s story—all of his descriptions of the women he meets are centered on curves rather than personality, with the sole exception of a 40-something writer, Loubna Minbar, who intimates herself into Mokhtar’s new life by way of third parties. The question emerges whether our narrator’s story is truly his own, or whether it’s being interpreted by the mysterious other who waits in the wings of this sophisticated but intricate text.
Not for everyone, but readers seeking out a truly innovative creative model for literature will plunge down this rabbit hole with abandon.