The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
Originally published in French in 2007, Leïla Marouane’s fifth novel boldly tackles the issue of Muslim identity in a hostile, post-9/11 France. Islamophobia is the driving motivation in the story of Mohamed Ben-Mokhtar, an Algerian immigrant who Gallicizes his name, straightens his hair and even bleaches his skin in order to circumvent prejudice as he furthers his quest for bourgeois success as a financier in Paris. Divided between his will to succeed and the need to please a zealot mother and brother who would rather remain in suburban poverty than compromise their faith, he silently abandons his identity to reinvent himself as a womanizing bachelor in a luxury Saint-Germain-des-Prés apartment.
From that premise, however, the novel takes a steady plunge downhill. More than three-quarters of the book chronicle Mohamed’s frustrated attempts at seducing every woman he sees. A virgin at 40, Mohamed sneers at his potential targets with inexperienced conceit, then pours over their every reaction with surging paranoia as he realizes they won’t fall head over heels for his wealth. This is largely the story of a man alone in his apartment, drunkenly meditating about his lonely life with bland quasi-wit.
The central flaw of the book is its incoherent protagonist. Mohamed shifts unexplainably and inconsequently between hating his overbearing mother and sacrificing all his ambitions for her wellbeing. As the most concrete character in the book, his progenitor is likewise unappealing, consisting mostly of jealous clichés most readers will recognize, ironically enough, from the stereotypical Jewish mother in the comedy canon.
Mohamed’s moody musings on why women don’t return his phone calls do not offer enough of a plot. His navel-gazing philosophy hardly makes for compelling commentary. To top it off, the tale is couched in a clumsy metafictional frame that filters Mohamed’s narration with an additional voice – signaled with nothing but a ‘he said’ or ‘he continued’ interpolated into the first sentence of every chapter – until the novel’s last chapters. A few dozen pages from the end, the lethargic drag of the preceding account gets shaken into a convoluted Borgesian twist that, quite paradoxically, undoes all the steps of a story where not much had happened to begin with.
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris does achieve an undisputable success in its handling of Islamic references. With Muslim tradition occupying much of the protagonist’s rhetoric (and all of his exchanges with his family), a sense of the common lifestyle of North-African families in the Parisian periphery remains clear throughout the book, despite heavy use of Arabic jargon (though previous knowledge of a handful of essential terms like ‘Qaaba’, ‘hadith’ and ‘kafir’ couldn’t hurt). Other than that, this is empty post-modern fluff that misses the whole point of experimental literature: you need some substance in your lines before you can add something to be read in between them.
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane; Europa Editions; ISBN 978-1-933372-85-3; $15. Originally appeared in Erotic Review issue 115.