Leila Marouane’s fifth novel, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, is by many aspects, a radical shift in the author’s work. A committed journalist and activist for women rights in Algeria, Marouane flew to Europe at the beginning of the nineties to escape Islamist threats. She then began to write fiction, and her first novel’s characters naturally reflected the life and ordeals of those she knew best: Algerian women. The physically abused Samira from Abductor, the disoriented Hadda Bouchnaffa from La Fille de la Casbah or the sterile and rejected Fatima Kosra from Le Châtiment des Hypocrites (both titles still to be translated) are all women crushed by the patriarchal order of a society that considers them second class citizens.
This outline does not apply to The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (published in 2010 by Europa Editions, translation by Alison Anderson). The novel’s central character is a man: Mohamed Ben Mokhtar – or Basile Tocquard as he oddly re-baptised himself; a middle-manager banker in his forties, full of self-confidence. Ben Mokhtar is a second-generation Algerian immigrant, something you would barely notice since he takes great care to whiten his skin and straighten his hair. The “apple of his mother’s eyes”, he received “a real religious education” and can still boost an impressive knowledge of Koranic scriptures, even though he is secretly drifting away from religion. Determined to emancipate further, Ben Mokhtar-Tocquard leaves the family flat of Saint-Ouen, a shabby banlieue, to settle in a luxurious apartment of Saint-Germain, in posh central Paris. In his new “little Versailles”, he can at last focus on his obsession with… losing his virginity.
“My objective was (…) to have my way with as many women as possible”, Mohamed makes clear, “To have relationships as brief as they were volcanic. To immerse myself in debauchery and luxury. Unto satiety, I said again, carefully folding my clothes. Until depletion. Of the senses. And of that store of hormones that each man owes it to himself to evacuate.”
Full of his simplistic grasp of the feminine mind, he embarks in comical encounters with women whom he clumsily tries to drag into his bed. First comes Hadda Bouchnaffa, a forty-something manuscript editor; then Samira, an innocent but not-so-naïve student; then Djamila, a liberated painter who (almost) dispels Mohamed’s curse; and at last Fatima Kosra, a successful lawyer delighted to finally be pregnant… Clearly alluding to Marouane’s previous heroines, the cunning women offer a stark contrast with the callow Mohamed.
These feminine characters all revolve in one way or another around the mysterious Loubna Minbar – initials L.M., as Marouane herself. A famous novelist said to be a “stealer of lives” who “avoided her own sisters, forgot her father’s existence, and, above all, looked down on her fellow creatures, only agreeing to meet with them in order to advance her literary projects”, her books soon obsess Mohamed – especially the most recent one, The Sultan of Saint-Germain. Lost between the world of docile females he imagined and the chaste reality he has to face, Ben Mokhtar tries to explain his misfortune by external reasons. Could he be cursed? Could this Loubna Minbar he keeps hearing about wherever he goes have stolen his life? Could she have used it to write her last book?
As Mohamed’s world slowly collapses, the reader understands that he has been fooled. The text is seemingly written by Ben Mokhtar in the first person, but clues of a “shadow narrator” pulling the strings behind Mohamed slowly appear. Reinforcing this impression, the final part of the novel begins with an epigraph of Minbar herself: “no books are committed without a motive”… When Ben Mokhtar’s sanity completely collapses, it becomes clear that the real narrator’s true intention was not to treat his reader with smutty confidences about The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, but rather to confront him with the simplistic – thus deadly – views on women of males of the kind of Mohamed.
In a complex, yet splendidly mastered game of mirrors, Minbar-Marouane re-explores her own work, digging deeper into the themes that haunt her. Are women condemned to submission? Is freedom compatible with happiness? And, ultimately, is writing possible without betraying the characters?