Phantasmagoria of French Fiction

By Lewis, Tess | The Hudson Review, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Phantasmagoria of French Fiction

Lewis, Tess, The Hudson Review

Phantasmagoria of French Fiction

Despite the discouraging state of publishing in general and literary translation in particular, there are grounds for fans of French fiction to rejoice. A broad and varied selection of novels translated from French since 2011 spanning seven decades and several continents arrived at The Hudson Review offices this year. From an isolated, emotionally suffocating Swiss farmstead to the bustling metropolises of Cairo and Beirut, from the ruminations of an unhinged guard of Paleolithic cave paintings to a Parisian high society murder trial, from melodrama to tragedy, from traditional realism to mutinous characters complaining about the course of the novel they have been trapped in, this fiction is as protean, slippery, engaged, rough and refined, satisfying and provocative as one could wish for.

Two of the most interesting novelists in this recent crop, the Lebanese writer Dominique Eddé and the Djibouti-born Abdourahman A. Waberi, center their fiction on the social and political gales that have been buffeting the Arab world for several generations. Although Djibouti is a small country in East Africa, wedged between Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, it has long been oriented towards the Arab world. Its strategic position on the Horn of Africa, separated from Yemen by the narrow Strait of Mandeb or the Gate of Grief, will become even more influential when the projected twenty-nine-mile Bridge of die Horns connecting Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is built in the coming decade. Waberi's latest novel, Passage of Tears (published in French in 2009), ' takes its name from this strait in die Red Sea and tracks the conflicting and converging geopolitical, economic, social and religious interests that have been transforming die region through die stories of the twins Djibril and Djamal.

The chapters alternate between the voices of die two brothers. Djibril was born a few minutes before midnight on June 26, 1977, the eve of Djibouti's independence from France. Djamal, however, was born just a half an hour later, but by dien in a different country. He ends up in another world entirely than his brother. Djibril, adventurous and outgoing, left his family as a teenager to study abroad and never looked back. He settled in Montreal, where he got a degree in computer science, a French-Canadian girlfriend, and a job in an economic intelligence firm called Adorno Location Scouting. This firm has sent him back to Djibouti to compile a report assessing the country's stability and potential for energy development as well as its susceptibility to terrorist threats. Djibril thinks he can avoid his past and any personal involvement with the country he has left behind. Djamal had joined a network of Islamic extremists after trying and failing for years to find any kind of employment. Although he sits in an island prison transcribing the thoughts and sermons of his blind "venerable Master," Djamal is kept informed on his brother's every movement and on his group's plot to assassinate him.

One of the few things the brothers share, although they are unaware of it, is a fascination for Walter Benjamin's life and works, especially for his conception of history. Djibril was introduced to the German writer's books and ideas by his girlfriend. Djamal finds a manuscript about Benjamin buried in the floor of his cell - German refugees and prisoners had been incarcerated there under the Vichy government. All of these elements - the pawn in the service of rapacious global conglomerates, a converted Islamic terrorist, and the legacy of a German intellectual who committed suicide rather than be captured by the Nazis - could make for a terribly tendentious, heavy-handed novel, but Waberi is too sly and deft a writer. Neither of the brothers' certainties are unshakable. Djibril gradually comes to realize the price he has paid for turning his back on his origins, and Djamal's surreptitious discovery of Benjamin's subtle complexities and sinuous thought sows the seeds of impatience with his master's categorical pronouncements.

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