translated from the French: "La vie devant soi" reviewed by Donna Scott
Right from the start, Romain Gary succeeds in shaking loose the literary shackles that won him the 1956 Prix Grancourt France's coveted literary prize, only to win it a second time (forbidden by the rules) for this novel, under the carefully constructed pseudonym Emile Ajar. No longer bound by the expected literary prose and style of Romain Gary, he creates a voice that is peppered with malapropisms and puns. Through these clever language devices we are forced to read the words with new meanings, turning our collective and personal presumptions about life, human nature and the laws we devise to live by upside down. Readers who skim will lose out.
The tale is doled out with hilarious, insightful and empathetic doses of dark humor, irony and satire by his protagonist Mohammed, uneducated, but with very smart observations. It is a voice we trust and never tire of. Momo, as he's called, is a ten year old Arab boy (later discovering he's actually fourteen), left at the age of three by his sole parent, a prostitute mother, in the care of Madame Rosa, a Jewish Holocaust survivor and former prostitute. The rest of the story is a simple one, told by Momo: he and Madam Rosa are all they have in the world. The trouble is, Madame Rosa is dying, and Momo means to take us on the journey along with him and their community of immigrant Jews, Arabs and Africans, as well as a loving transvestite, to see that this old, fearful Holocaust survivor finds a dignified death.
Author and protagonist share a vague history: Gary, the internationally celebrated author, French war hero and diplomat, was born in Eastern Europe to a Jewish single mother (he never knew his father), who had great ambitions for her son—a writer being only one of her aspirations. “The Life Before Us” makes use of Gary's background: Momo declares this narration to be “my Miserables.” Gary invites comparisons to Victor Hugo's historic tome of injustices to those of his own Paris in the 1970's. And, while both also contain love stories, the one between the young Arab immigrant and his old and dying Jewish surrogate mother is the very heartbeat of Gary's Miserables. A great distinction is that, Gary's story is language driven; it's impossible to imagine “The Life Before Us” presented by an omniscient narrator, anymore than you can separate Huckleberry Finn's distinctive voice and language in Mark Twain's “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
On the very first page, Momo's testimonial of love fills his description of her climb up to their seventh floor walk-up: “(that) Madame Rosa, with all the pounds she had to lug around with her, had more than her share of daily life with its sorrows and cares.” And his humor, as he continues: “She said so, too, whenever she wasn't complaining about something else, because to make matters worse she was Jewish...if ever there was a woman who deserved an elevator it was Madame Rosa.”
On being Arab in France, Momo tells us, “For a long time I didn't know I was an Arab, because nobody insulted me. I only found out when I went to school. But I never got into fights. It always hurts when you hit somebody.” “(She) called me an Arab asshole, for the first time—she'd never done it before because she wasn't French.”
Blacks have it no easier. Momo's Belleville is landscaped with tenements “with as many as a hundred and twenty inmates, eight to a room and only one can...so they go wherever they can, because those things won't wait. Before my time there were shantytowns, but the government cleared them away because they made a bad impression.” About one black: “It seems he'd already killed a few people, but that was between blacks and they had no identity, because they're not French like the American blacks and the police only bother about people who exist.”
Especially provocative is his use of the word abortion: Madame Rosa wouldn't go to a hospital because “in the hospital they let you die until the bitter end, instead of giving you a shot. She said they were against mercy killing in France and forced you to live as long as you were capable of suffering...there was no way of getting abortioned at the hospital.” Abortions had just become legalized in France in 1975—the year “The Life Before Us” was published. However, the debate over euthanasia has once again been reignited since the double suicide in a Paris hotel in November, 2013 in the upscale Saint-Germain district of an 86 year old couple who left behind a letter addressed to French legal authorities “demanding the right to die in a dignified manner.”
Observations about human nature are delivered with dead-pan dark humor: Concerning the disregard in the world, he says, “You've got to decide which kind of disregard you prefer and people always pick the biggest and most expensive, like the Nazis, who cost millions, or Vietnam...People need millions and millions to feel concerned, and you can't blame them, because little things don't amount to much.” “If the army spent its time taking care of old people, it wouldn't be the French Army any more.” “In Africa everyone belongs to a tribe...in France there aren't any tribes on account of self-seeking individualism.” “France is completely detribalized and that's why young people band together and try to do something about it.” One of the kindest people in the book is Madame Lola, a Senegalese transvestite, who wasn't allowed to adopt because “transvestites are too different and that's something that society never forgives.”
Momo's language delights with its delivery, all the while the truths of his messages break our hearts. Romain Gary has applied with great precision what writers have long known: the more specificity you apply, the greater its universality.
Above all, Gary has entertained us, all the while informing us about love, human existence and the meaning of how to live your life. It's no wonder it now finds itself on the syllabus of American Universities.