Les Sauvages (“The Barbarians”), the first novel by Parisian writer Sabri Louatah, is a turbulent portrait of a contemporary France divided between a desire for globalization and a wave of nationalism. It is being published in four parts by Flammarion-Versilio. The third volume was published in the fall of 2013, and Louatah is currently working on the final book. The first volumes are set during the May 2012 presidential elections in France, pitting the outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy against the Socialist Idder Chaouch, a fictional humanist politician of Arab origin, who embodies the dream of national unity and social harmony.
These political events constitute the background of the book, which focuses on the Nerrouches, a traditionalist Kabyle clan who has been living for three generations in the suburbs of Grenoble, a small city near the Alps. Les Sauvages begins as a family saga, as the Nerrouches’ young son, Slim, marries Kenza Zerbi, a girl from Oran, in Algeria. During the wedding celebrations, the reader hears about the rumors that surround the bride’s clan. The bride’s brothers, Fouad and Nazir, are at the center of this colorful and energetic world. They are also completely opposite characters: Fouad, a proponent of social integration and supporter of Idder Chaouch, versus the dark Nazir, an enigmatic figure whose activities and beliefs are tinted with fundamentalism. Soon, the reader discovers that the political destiny of France is inseparable from the destiny of the Nerrouche clan.
Through the circulating rumors, we discover that Nazir has actually orchestrated a terrorist attack against Idder Chaouch during the second round of voting, just twenty-four hours after the wedding. He is involved with mysterious political networks, including French elites like the wealthy conservative Monteequiou clan, as well as terrorist groups like the Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. Slowly the family story reveals a more profound thread: a complex political plot that combines personal stories and conflicts with national and international history.
A huge fan of American fiction and TV series like ER, Sabri Louatah conceived Les Sauvages as an ambitious and dynamic political drama filled with compelling characters and narrative twists. He also fills his story with lively dialogue, peppering it with local dialects like Grenoblois gaga, street slang, text-talk and newspaper jargon that reinforce the allegro tempo of the book. Despite a naturalist bias, the writer goes beyond pure social critique to create a wild fictional romp about contemporary France and its contradictions.
In an interview (on France 5), the young writer has said that he wanted to replace social personality types with “real” characters. For this purpose, he took inspiration from his own life, drawing motivation from his own childhood in a Franco-Algerian community in Grenoble and the more recent tension of the 2012 presidential campaign. The novel is noteworthy for the voice it gives to minorities that are often absent in French literature and media. At the same time, though, the characters often struggle to move beyond the media stereotypes that generated them. Still, Les Sauvages is enjoyable—like a tumultuous political TV drama, which plays beautifully at the surface of reality without plunging too deep into the facts.