What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Reading to Make Sense of Tragedy: "Nous Sommes Tous Charlie"

In the wake of the slaughter of a dozen people in Paris, ten of whom worked for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, by Islamic terrorists yelling "God is great!", I have been relieved to see how peaceful -- and moving -- reactions have been. But while this horrific attack is clearly the action of a lunatic fringe, it is one of a string of similar assaults, and has provoked a debate over whether this is simply extremist violence that has nothing whatsoever to do with what is happening within France (or the Netherlands, or other Western European nations). On the other hand, some commenters have also taken note of the fact that the terrorists spoke fluent French, and that France has a large and too often marginalized population, some second and third generation French citizens, who are descendants of immigrants from former French colonies in Muslim nations in North Africa and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Study after study has shown they face discrimination in the job market and in housing -- they can even find it hard to open a bank account.

But let's not venture down this rabbit hole. Instead, I think it's time to take a step back. Because there is one bright spot here, other than the tremendous reaffirmation for free speech and other Enlightenment values on the part of all French people and an absence of any backlash against Paris's immigrant community, outside the city's péripherique highway. That is that the fact that the decades-long tensions between these communities have produced some great novels, many of which Europa Editions has translated and brought to the attention of English language readers. Here are a handful of the highlights.

The first of these is geographically on target -- The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris. To say that Mohamed, author Leila Marouane's protagonist, is conflicted, would be putting it mildly. On the one hand, at the age of 40, he lives with his mother and younger brother in the Algerian neighborhood of Saint Ouen in Paris (better known to tourists as home to a great flea market). On the other hand, he also has "Gallicized" his name; he ensures his skin is pale and that his hair is straight enough that he isn't mistaken for an Arab in real life, so unlike a lot of the guys he knew growing up, he's got a great job. But what Marouane is doing is painting a picture of what it's like for a man in today's France when identities collide in immigrant communities. Which is the real Mohamed? Is he the "Momo" that his community knows, or "Basile Tocquard", the new Gallic identity he has adopted and that allows him to "pass" and be accepted by broader French society in a way that Mohamed never would?

Momo's identity crisis comes to a head when he discovers his dream apartment and sets out to build a dream life in it, complete with (at last!) losing his virginity to what he hopes will be an endless stream of non-Algerian women. "All that remained for me to do was to go over the wall, with the firm intention of becoming an individual who decides and charts his life as a Westerner, on a full-time basis, with every right thereto pertaining." But while he fantasizes about the real estate agent who sells him the apartment, many of the other women he encounters actually turn out to be Algerian, and he is haunted by another the reader never quite encounters, an Algerian novelist named Loubna Minbar. Like life itself, maybe Momo's emancipation isn't going to be quite as straightforward as he had hoped?

The novel starts out as a straightforward chronicle of the adventures of Momo/Basile, only to take on an almost hallucinatory tone, leaving the reading questioning the narrator's reliability and pondering the havoc that discrimination can play on a psyche. A bonus? It's translated by Alison Anderson, who does an amazing job capturing not just the literal translation but providing an individual 'feel' for each novel she translates.

The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal is another dark novel set partly in the banlieues/suburbs of Paris. Sansal, an Algerian-born writer, has had his works banned in his native country since 2006, and, like Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists, is an equal opportunity critic, although he doesn't work in satire, but uses much darker material altogether.

This novel is so far Sansal's only title to be available here, although as of next week (!), Bloomsbury USA will be releasing Harraga, set in Algeria itself. (I've got it ordered already.) The focus of this book is the diaries of two brothers, Rachel (Raschid Helmut) and his much younger brother, Malrich. On Rachel's death, Malrich discovers that his German father and Algerian mother also are dead -- victims of a massacre in Algeria's bloody civil war between the military and fundamentalist Islamists. Reading Rachel's diary, he unearths uncomfortable truths about his father's youth in the SS -- truths that Rachel found unbearable. But while Rachel found history trapped him, Malrich's own efforts to understand and make sense of his past focus on his present life in one of the Parisian housing projects that are "home" to large numbers of Tunisians, Moroccans and Algerians and others trying to carve out lives for themselves in a largely unwelcoming country.

Malrich already is aghast at the success that radical Islamists are having in radicalizing his community and sees uncanny parallels between the Nazis of his father's generation and the fundamentalists. Sansal's strength lies in his ability to deliver two parallel tales in utterly different and convincing voices: that of a mature man whose world collapses, and that of an adolescent who must find a path for himself that escapes the paradigm of victim and oppressor. Malrich's tone is that of a young guy chatting to his friends; Rachel's is more sober and analytical; bother are utterly convincing. Who is guilty? What does it mean to resist? These are weighty topics and Sansal does an excellent job of engaging with them.

If you need or want a lighter approach to these very weighty and important topics, you'll want to turn to the works of another Algerian-born author, Amara Lakhous. Lakhous, who until very recently has lived and worked in Italy, has written a series of three elegant and often hilarious novels set in Italian cities and focusing on the motley groups of migrants who end up sharing neighborhoods and apartment buildings. Divorce Islamic Style is a slyly funny look at a particular corner of Rome, Viale Marconi, known as "Little Cairo". One of its main characters, Christian, is from Sicily -- but he speaks perfect Arabic and can pass for an Arab. So when the government officials and cops get antsy about the possibility of some kind of terrorist plot brewing, it makes sense that they dispatch Christian (as Issa) to figure out what is going on. There, his path crosses that of Sofia, or Saffia, wife of an immigrant from Egypt. She's delighted with life in Rome -- and young and beautiful. Her husband? Not so much. Trained as an architect, he's stuck working as a pizza chef, and keeps getting so frustrated and fed up that he'll come home and argue with her, to the point that he'll yell "I divorce you!" in the heat of the moment. Whoops... if this happens a third time, she'll be free -- and remarriage won't be very easy at all...

Lakhous's other novels also tackle what happens when people from disparate culture backgrounds try to coexist, with Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazzo Vittoria making the point that for someone in Rome, a guy who shows up from Sicily or Calabria can be just as much (or more) of an outsider as someone who is a migrant from North Africa. Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet even had a reviewer at the Philadelphia Inquirer questioning whether Lakhous was an Italian Camus, writing novels trying to address the 'new Italy'.

The sudden rise of multiculturalism in Europe in the second half of the 20th century -- and the fact that in many countries, in practice, multiculturalism has taken the form of immigration from Muslim nations (in Britain, from Pakistan and Bangladesh; in Belgium and France, from Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Mali, among other countries; in Germany, 'guest workers' from Turkey) -- has created all kinds of new tensions. Whether those tensions are connected to these horrific acts of terrorism, there's a risk that members of these communities will have to deal with an upsurge in exclusionary nationalism.

Which makes it worthwhile to listen to these voices, as we mourn the Charlie Hebdo tragedy.

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