Complete coincidence saw me reading this directly after Old Masters. There are odd points of comparison. Firstly, they are both related by others. ‘Reger told me…’ and, in this one, ‘It came over me all of a sudden, he said.’ So, in both we are aware of an interpretation going on, a reporting of the story even though ‘he said’ immediately becomes ‘I’.
Secondly, both main characters are deeply unhappy and find the world an entirely unsatisfactory place. But whereas Reger is a completely detestable odious old crank, Mohamed is wonderful, the reader is in his corner. Reger has no particular cause for unhappiness, it is like he seeks it out by turning the world into a place at which to rage. Mohamed is an Algerian Muslim in Paris – or rather in a Muslim slum outside Paris. He is trapped there with an overbearing mother who is the type to control those around her by pointing out interminably what she has done for them, the sacrifices made.
Not for the first time I acknowledge how lucky I am that my parents never once in their hard-working, sacrificing-for-their-children lives, made us beholden to them. It must be awful to live in cultures where those sacrifices are investments, made now to get something back later; weights placed upon children to prevent them from being free.
So there Mohamed is, living with one of those women who make powerlessness a strength with which they hold their children vice-like. Mohamed wants to escape. He wants to escape his mother, the slum, the expectations, Islam, the lot. He has a well-paid job, he can afford to move into Paris proper. All he has to do is trade in his cultural background for a new look, a new name, a bit of skin-whitening, a little hair-straightening. He wants to be a new person, a banker still by day, but by night a writer, a cosmopolitan type, a wooer of women. He wants to get laid. More than anything in the world he wants to lose his virginity.
This could just be trite and silly, but it isn’t for one moment that. It is funny and sad and excruciatingly embarrassing. Leïla Marouane is on my to-read more list. Highly recommended.