As first lines go, that of Leïla Marouane’s second novel and debut in English, The Abductor (2000, translated by Felicity McNab), is a masterpiece of concision and intrigue: “My father lay helpless on the sofa while my mother was being joined to Youssef Allouchi in lawful wedlock.” Why, we wonder, is this man helpless while the mother of his children is being joined—the passive construction implying a lack of agency on her part—to another man, especially since “the sofa” conjures a family home? And what’s with the antiquated phrase “lawful wedlock” when “marriage” could presumably suffice?
In others words, you couldn’t possibly resist reading on, and when you do, it soon becomes apparent that none of those meticulously chosen details were merely decorative. The novel, which depicts the catastrophic consequences for six daughters of their volatile father’s adherence to Islamic law, seamlessly blends feminist comedy and gut-wrenching tragedy, and establishes Marouane as an uncommonly entertaining critic of religious anachronism. Algerian born and raised but a resident of Paris since 1990, the author has worked as a journalist in both countries—gaining the reputation as a vocal defender of women’s rights—and has published four other novels, including the Prix Jean-Claude Izzo-winning La jeune fille et la mere (“The Young Girl and the Mother”), and a collection of short stories.
In her latest novel, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (translated, ever skillfully, by Alison Anderson), Marouane has taken her perennial theme—the contradictory demands of family, religion, culture and individual desires monumentally screwing up lives—and written a truly startling and original story.
The superficial premise is controversial enough: Algerian-born Mohamed Ben Mokhtar is a 40-year-old virgin and lapsed Islamist who has been passing, he claims, as Frenchman Basile Tocquard in his professional Parisian life, thanks to skin-lightening creams and regular hair-straightening. With his high-flying banking career, self-described handsome looks, and designer clothes, he should be a regular Casanova with the ladies—and he plans to be, just as soon as he’s moved out of his overbearing mother’s apartment in the Northern suburb of Saint-Ouen and into his own place in the chic neighborhood of Saint-Germain-de-Pres.
Once happily installed in his opulent bachelor pad, his “little Versailles,” Mohamed/Basile ponders the pleasures to come: “Women left and right, wham bam thank you ma’am. Advocates of relations without consequence or change of heart. No lifetime commitments. No procreation.” But to his immense frustration, divesting himself of that burdensome virginity proves more challenging than he’d anticipated. As the vaguely implausible romantic encounters pile up—they’re all with women of remarkably similar appearance (“long wavy hair” and “large dark eyes”), who each offers a different, but unwavering, excuse for why penetrative sex is off the menu—we begin to seriously question Mohamed’s reliability as a narrator. We become curious, too, about the woman he occasionally addresses in the second person, and whose conspicuous tags—“he said” or “he continued”—at the beginning of each chapter mark her out as the actual storyteller.
Slowly but surely her identity emerges: it seems that Mohamed’s words are being filtered by Loubna Minbar, a mysterious author whose own varying biography haunts his adventures and links her to all of his new women friends, who in turn might be characters in her novels, as might his idolized cousin Driss, who is possibly the inspiration for Minbar’s novel The Sultan of Saint-Germain—or is that one about Mohamed himself?
One thing is certain: Leïla Marouane/Loubna Minbar is determined to make a terrible fool of Mohamed, whose woefully misguided attitudes toward women, to say nothing of his inflated sense of his own sexual appeal, are mercilessly exploited for our amusement. There are James Bond-inspired fantasies of his attractive blonde realtor materializing at his door, naked under a raincoat; a casual mention of how in the street one afternoon, “two young girls…were examining me with lust so extreme as to be embarrassing,” embarrassing being the operative word; and in response to a rejection from one of his attempted conquests, Mohamed insists to himself that she’s “flattered” and that she likely demurred because “she had never suspected a cool dude like myself would court her, so had neglected to wax.” And so on.
But beneath the farce and the mockery run poignant undercurrents: Mohamed, we learn early in the novel, has been under the care of a psychiatrist since his father died of alcohol-induced cirrhosis of the liver fifteen years ago. He is obliged to keep this, and his dependence on medication, secret from his mother and siblings because “a man, a real man, where we come from” shouldn’t need tranquilizers or sleeping pills. Other crippling conflicts wage perpetual battle in his consciousness: he feels guilty about leaving behind his former life as a “good Muslim,” about posing as a native Frenchman, and most of all about betraying his beloved and endlessly self-sacrificing mother (who, naturally, wants nothing more than the apple of her eye’s marriage to a suitable girl) by leaving home and consorting with strange women.
The question the novel repeatedly poses, though, is who are these women? Are they real people, or figments of Mohamed’s feverish imagination, or heroines of other novels gone rogue? Or perhaps they’re all three, as one character suggests when explaining how Minbar ruthlessly uses people in order to “advance her literary projects…Anyone who goes near that woman—she steals people’s lives—inevitably ends up losing their mind.”
In fact, it is central to Marouane’s purpose that no unequivocal answers are forthcoming: the fictional world so adroitly built in The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris is defined by a postmodern slipperiness of any textual or actual authority, with the artificial manipulations of the novelist standing as a metaphor for those of society itself. Just as the clashing belief systems—cultural, national, religious, sexual, generational—that impinge, devastatingly in the end, upon poor confused Mohamed are legitimate or not depending on one’s point of view, so it is that none of the different threads, layers and interpretations of his tale can assert truthfulness over each other, even as they ingeniously co-exist to form one of the most innovative novels you’re likely to read this or any other year.