Russia vs. Algeria [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This first-round match pits a futuristic fantasy of reborn Russian czardom against a present-day fantasy of repressed Algerian Islamism in Paris. Male author against female. Slav against Arab. Political satire against social satire. This is the World Cup of Literature.
The Russian representative is Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (2006), a novel that recounts one day in the life of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, newly reestablished in the 21st century for a new czar ruling a new Russia. In this futuristic world, the Chinese exert great political, economic, and linguistic power. Russian borders are kept safe thanks to gigantic border walls. And the oprichnina are the safeguards of domestic peace and unity. They are men of patriotism and torture, faith and violence, corruption and luxury, censorship and rape, even sadism and sadomasochism—brutal men with a sacred purpose, unique bonding rituals, and a very high buying price.
Against this contender, the Algerians put forth Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (2007). Protagonist Mohamed ben Mokhtar decides he has had enough of his life as a pious Muslim Algerian virgin momma’s boy living in the Parisian banlieues. So he changes his name to the more Frenchified Basile Tocquard, straightens his hair, whitens his skin, and moves into the center of Paris in preparation for a life of unbridled sexual and consumerist pleasure. The good life as a faux Frenchman doesn’t turn out quite like he expects though. He only manages to attract Arab women, mostly older and not exactly charmed by his thinly veiled misogyny.
There is something a little crazy about an Algerian doing everything in his power to suppress his identity to become more French than the French themselves. Mohamed’s masturbation to religious fantasies is also a tad bit strange. However, when it comes down to sheer insanity, Day of the Oprichnik takes the cake with its religious patriotism, mundane torture, nonchalant book-burning, and drug injection by vein-crawling fish. Mostly, though, Sorokin’s novel beats out Marouane’s on this front because of a single drug-fueled gay orgy scene near the end in which the testicles of each oprichnik glow a special color based on his rank in the oprichnina hierarchy. For sheer over-the-top-ness, Sorokin’s novel slides one home. (Russia 1 – 0 Algeria)
Be that as it may, Algeria mounts a strong challenge when it comes to questions of identity. With the Russians, it’s quite simple. As Sorokin’s narrator has it: “The Russian people aren’t easy to work with. But God hasn’t given us any other people.” For the Algerians, it’s not just about managing (that is, torturing or raping or killing) their hard-headed and hard-drinking compatriots. The novel is infused with dichotomies—French vs. Arab, Muslim vs. Western, good son vs. bad son, wife vs. whore—that produce conflicted desires and confused identities. The permutations are endless, and Marouane keeps it interesting. Algeria equalizes. (Russia 1 – 1 Algeria)
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Marouane’s novel, however, is the postmodern twist she throws into the narration. Slowly but surely, a feminine voice cleverly intrudes into the hopelessly narcissistic masculine narrative. By the end, it’s not clear who is fictional and who is real, who is writing and who is being written, who is the original and who is the copy. Russia may have crazy, but, with its clever narrative ploy, Algeria keeps the reader guessing until the very end. (Russia 1 – 2 Algeria)
Russia keeps it interesting with outlandish scenes, yet the hyperbole can only carry Sorokin’s novel so far. The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris tones down the hyperbole and outlasts Day of the Oprichnik with a more understated social critique. Slow and steady does the trick, and Algeria pulls out the win.
Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris moves on to the next round to face the winner of Germany vs. Ghana!
Christopher Schaefer’s writing has appeared in World Literature Today, Three Percent, and The Quarterly Conversation. His celebratory antics after Landon Donovan’s match-winning goal for the United States over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup earned him the ire of a cafe full of Arabs. His literary judgment was in no way influenced by this event.