Reviewed by Sara C. Rauch for New Pages
Brace yourself for The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane. Not only is it hilarious and disturbing, it is also disorienting, cunning, and bizarre.
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson, Marouane's possibly metafictional tale about an Islamic Algerian man desperate to escape the confines of his religion and life in the suburbs, is a many-layered, nuanced, sometimes outrageous, story about independence and the impossibility of escaping the past.
Marouane's narrative is intriguing: told in the first person, yet filtered through a third party. The reader is never quite sure if Basile Tocquard's retelling of events is his own, or if it is being rewritten without his knowing.
Basile, born Mohamed Ben Mokhtar in Algeria, but educated in France, has Frenchified his name without the knowledge of his family so that he may escape the prejudice he feels directed at him. Despite his light skin, French name, well-paying job at a top bank, he is riddled with inadequacy and the desperate desire to escape his family and religion. His mother clearly adores him, even at the end of the novel after he's repeatedly lied to her and broken plan after plan. After procuring an expensive apartment in a desirable neighborhood, Basile sets out to lose his virginity. He meets woman after woman, all of whom know the novelist Loubna Minbar. This coincidence never causes Basile any trouble, even as the women repeatedly mention her presence in their lives.
As the novel progresses, Basile becomes more and more delusional, and instead of successfully embracing his new life, he relives the same events over and over with different women. These women, despite their oddities, actually have more depth than Basile does, unobsessed with paradise as Basile is. A few women into Basile's independence, the reader starts wondering about his plausibility, and ultimately, his sanity. Take for instance, his encounter with the second woman he meets: 40-something, Algerian, and ultimately, a lesbian. Despite her rebuffs, first gentle, then more insistent, finally making an escape in a taxi with vague promises to meet again for lunch. That night, Basile comes up with excuse for why she turned him down: "Could it be, too, that she had never suspected a cool dude like myself would court her, so she had neglected to wax? or she had her period?... Was I not the ideal candidate? The sultan of Saint-Germain? An excellent party, who would give her nothing to be ashamed of?"
Basile's incessant, dead-end quest for a modern life is filled with plenty of unexpected discoveries. His entire family is harboring secrets behind their perfect Islamic facade. The cousin he idolizes has two wives and several mistresses, and was perhaps the latest victim of the deceitful author, Loubna Minbar, who pops up with more and more frequency as the novel progresses. The ongoing clash between tradition and modern life, between religion and sexuality, between mother and son, and between brother and brother, courses through the novel. In fact, despite Basile's escapades with woman after woman, and his expressive floundering of exorbitant sums of money, and his repeated erotic day dreams, the meat of the novel comes from these clashes – because Basile never learns from the previous encounter, no matter who it might be with, his endless bumbling and pretending is fascinating, comedic, and rather telling of the lies people cling to in their lives.
The confessional tone of the book makes Basile a sympathetic, if pathetic, narrator. He is comical in his ignorance, and sometimes infuriating as well. His bravado is honest, indeed he seems not to know enough of the world to keep his hero-worship of himself to himself. But then, everything with Basile is pretense, so each of his interactions, and ultimately the entire book, is untrustworthy.
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris toes the line of farce. But Marouane's deft handling of the deeply human struggle of reality versus fantasy, familial obligations versus individual desire, religion versus culture, keeps the dizzying novel from falling into madness. Marouane's complex, increasingly circular plot pulls the reader in and leaves one delightfully disheveled, amused, and wondering for more.