The Unstable Identity of an Algerian in Paris

Reviewed By

Leïla Marouane’s 2010 novel The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris layers identity upon identity as it unravels the story of an Algerian-born Parisian banker.

Welcome to Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris. In June, 2006, Basile Tocquard, a fortyish Parisian banker, rents an apartment. He is a man of means. It’s a nice apartment in a chic neighborhood. This all sounds true-to-type, says the attentive reader. What’s the catch? As our chic monsieur tells an invisible interlocutor, his real name is Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, Momo to his friends and family, Algerian-born Muslims.

Momo-Basile is trying to escape his upbringing and his milieu. He has lived his whole life with his mother, the last thirty years in the same apartment in a North African-dominated suburb. He has worked hard and saved. He has not, despite his devoted mother’s pleas, married. Rich and technically unfettered, at least according to the standards of the West, he wants—who doesn’t?—to get laid. Hence the straightened hair, the new name, and the flat, where he hopes to escape his extended adolescence and commence the life of sexual profligacy that he feels he has earned. He says he’s especially, if not exclusively, interested in “… white women, regular users of the pill and condom, free in their bodies and their minds…”  Oh, and he’s a writer: any brief interludes between banking and acts of lust, will be spent writing “…poetry to make Antonin Artaud and Octavio Paz weep in unison in their graves….”

Literature and sex meet in this enterprise. The title itself alludes to a notorious book of ten years ago, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., art critic and editor Catherine Millet’s recounting of her long and densely packed sexual history. Momo has started too late to accumulate anywhere near her level of experience, but that’s only one of many ironies in his half-lived life. First, when he starts meeting women, they are not white but rather fellow Algerians-on-the-loose. They have suffered more than he in the pursuit of their freedom, not only sexual liberty, but also freedom of thought, something that doesn’t (for all his literary aspirations) seem to interest Momo as he tries to trade one sort of conformity for another. It’s not only the white world that is barred to him, though, each of his Algerian lovers finds an excuse to deny him sexual intercourse while permitting him sex in some partial sense.

Non-consummation, anonymity, avoidance: these themes at first echo, and then thunder through this book. The story is told to us by someone we never see, though her existence is increasingly alluded to. The first sentence of every chapter has a “…he said,” or “…he continued,” inserted into the otherwise-first-person narration. Momo’s first amour is reading a writer she is acquainted with, and he buys this author’s work. “Your books,” he calls them, addressing the narrator and so seeming to give her an identity: Loubna Minbar, prolific, controversial, and “sunk into paranoia worthy of psychiatric confinement” because someone uncovered her pseudonym (we’re not told whether it’s one of the names we know her by) so that now she fears for her life. Her original name is said to have been Louisa Machindel, an Algerian-Christian, of unknown, possibly mixed heritage. LM (also the initials of Leïla Marouane, born Leyla Mechintel: clever or heavy-handed?) is always interviewing someone, writing their life story. Then, her friends and acquaintances say, “when it’s all over, she moves on.” “When it’s all over?” Momo asks. When what’s all over? What does that mean? No one answers.

At the end of the book (when it’s all over) he invites his concerned family to a feast in his apartment, which he says he has painted Muslim green and redecorated in the Algerian style. When they show up, it is to take him to a psychiatric institution. Momo’s cousin, Driss (another Loubna Minbar interviewee) has killed himself and Momo tells his brother he also has met LM many times. “Sometimes she was a brunette, sometimes a redhead. Even a dyed blonde. Or a student,” he says, referring to his many girlfriends. “I am sure she thinks she fooled me with her disguises, just as she must have fooled Driss.”

From Antonin Artaud, an epigraph to the first part of the novel, titled “Dissidence,” reads, “Before you are someone, you must first be no one.” But Momo only vanishes, he never reappears. He is a cipher talking to a cipher. “He lived like a hermit,” the concierge says as they leave. “My name is Lisa Martinez but he had decided that my name was Loubna Minbar.”

There’s an early reference in the book to Camus and I did find myself musing on parallels to L’etranger. Meurseault kills an anonymous “Arab”; Momo effectively kills himself by thrusting himself into a type of anonymity. Meurseault’s thoughts, histories, and actions, externalized in the courtroom, have little to do with him, while Momo effaces himself. Anything he writes—the manuscript he is working on, his emails—vanishes. He leaves his mother’s home at the end of the first section, but we’re never positive that he has moved into his own. After all, we only have his word to go on. He has multiple names, none of which truly represent him. Also, while Camus’s book is known in English as The Stranger, the title translates equally well, in the abstract, as “the foreigner.” This is Momo’s permanent state: alienated from both of his countries and from himself.

The references, the epigraphs, the aliases of the vanishing unreal narrator, as well as those of Momo himself, imply that there is no identity, and so, no reality for anyone in the book who tries to leave one world and enter another. One of his sisters is married off into invisibility in Algeria after threatening to go astray in the West. By contrast, another marries a Frenchman who converts to Islam, and this couple remains within the fold, along with Momo’s orthodox younger brother. The strong implication is that Algerians who fully embrace a stereotypic identity get to live while those who attempt to cross over vanish, whether into a zenana, into a liminal world of unhappiness, or, as with Momo, into their own confusion. The controlling, unseeing, self-sacrificing Algerian mother is skewered, and the Algerian family seems sadly atomized.

This is an existential vacuum, with characters as poles, not people, as though Leila Marouane underestimates the human capacity for complexity. I’ll go so far out on a limb as to say this brand of “post-modernism” feels a bit dated. I understand that Momo is being satirized, and that satire tends to be broad and moral, but I like him, at least initially, and it was hard not to wonder if a search for some murky narrative middle ground might have revealed more complex truths about the instability of identity. What starts as an understated formal trope, “…he said,” becomes a virus as LM—a projection of Momo himself—steals his soul and so destroys the book along with anything resembling truth or identity. It is an ending sadly inadequate to the story, which, until then, deftly threads fantasy, humor, and frustration, leading us to expect more.

Padma Viswanathan's most recent novel is The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. More at her website: WWW.PADMAVISWANATHAN.COM More from this author →