In four novels and a collection of short stories, Leïla Marouane has become a voice for the Algerian women’s rights movement, exploring themes of marriage, sex, and identity in the context of the religious and cultural divide of the Maghreb/Western Europe region. She fearlessly takes on the taboo, as her skill with comedy renders even the most troubling political or religious issues accessible. Born in Algeria in 1960, Marouane escaped persecution towards her writing by moving to Paris in 1990. This is her second novel to be translated into English, following The Abductor, which was published by Quartet Books in the UK almost a decade ago.
With The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris—vividly translated by Alison Anderson—Marouane skillfully constructs a light, comedic plot behind which hides a dizzying maze of questions that, like an Escher staircase, form an endless loop. The story starts out as a comedy of errors starring Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant living in a Paris suburb who is also a forty-year-old virgin. Once a devout Muslim, Mohamed has left the faith and decided to free himself from his oppressively devoted mother by moving to Paris and Westernizing himself. He changes his name to Basile Tocquard, lightens his skin and straightens his hair, and sets out to become a famous poet and seduce as many blonde women as he possibly can. The results are hilarious, as in this great passage in which Mohamed naively plans out his new apartment:
"I determined where the bookshelf would go, along with the desk, facing the window, above the foliage that would inspire poetry to make Antonin Artaud and Octavio Paz week in unison in their graves, and then of course the bed, maybe a palatial king-size, where I would roll about with creatures to tempt angels and demons alike; a bathroom in tones of green and yellow, two sinks side by side, an oval tub that could easily seat two adults and into which I would plunge each of my future conquests and myself along with them; a separate toilet with a bookshelf that went right to the ceiling, where I would place my collections of Diplo and Politics, my graphic novels, and the girlie magazines I intended to acquire . . ."
However, Basile (also called Mohamed, and sometimes Momo) is something of a paradox: although he claims that he only has eyes for Western women, the women he becomes involved with are all Muslim, Algerian, and just the sort of woman his mother would approve of. Each of these women inevitably thwarts Mohamed’s plans to bed them, leaving him continually frustrated. As time wears on and Mohamed’s “conquests” multiply—he is always certain that a wild night of sexual abandon is right around the corner—we begin to question Mohamed’s reliability as a narrator. He starts to lose chunks of time, staying up all night entertaining his girlfriends—or does he?—and sleeping all afternoon. Then, suddenly, he jumps ahead three months as though it were the next day. A mysterious writer, Loubna Minbar (or Louisa Machindel, or is it Lisa Martinez?) appears as a common link between everyone Mohamed meets. A manuscript Mohamed believes to be written by her appears in his apartment, throwing the reality of the events of the entire story into question.
For the unobservant reader, it would be easy enough to miss the clues that Marouane—who coincidentally shares the same initials as the mysterious writer—has sprinkled throughout the story, details that seem too murky and puzzling for such a lighthearted, frivolous story. Even so, it would be impossible to escape a growing suspicion that Mohamed is not really the narrator but the protagonist in someone else’s story. Each chapter begins in the other writer’s voice, saying “he said,” before returning to Mohamed’s narrative; every so often Mohamed addresses an unnamed figure in the second person; and he is reading a novel called The Sultan of Saint-Germain that seems to be based on his cousin’s life, or even his own. The central mystery revolves around the chameleon-like Loubna Minbar, who may or may not be Mohamed’s concierge, and who exacts her revenge on men by stealing their life stories for her novels and driving them mad in the process. Because, while Marouane’s novel masquerades as a man’s story, it’s really a story about women, about the countless Algerian women who have had to make the humiliating journey to freedom in the Western world on the currency of their wits and their bodies. Ignored by Mohamed in his quest for sexual liberation, they become the heroines of the story, enjoying the same freedom that eludes him. As their stories cleverly illustrate, it may be a man’s world, but women get the last laugh.
Like its title, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris intends to provoke. And if you’re not careful it may also send you in circles, trying to get to the bottom of that staircase. As one of Marouane’s characters warns Mohamed, “Just reading her is enough to send you round the bend.”