13 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Chris Schaefer. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

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.

——

Did The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Erin O’Rourke on Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, which was translated from the French by Alison Anderson and published by Europa Editions earlier this year.

Erin O’Rourke has been interning with us all summer, reading a lot of the Italian books that were passed along thanks to our recent visit to the Torino International Book Fair. In her own words, she is an aspiring crazy cat lady, and is currently on a plane to San Francisco. (These two statements are unrelated. Maybe.)

She like the book quite a bit, and it does sound really interesting:

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:

For that passage, and the rest of the review, click here.

19 August 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments [4]

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.”

....
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