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Sexuality and Faith in Bitter, Humorous Embrace
By Michael Teague
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
By Leila Marouane (translated from the French by Alison Anderson)
Europa Editions, 2010
Mohammed Ben Mokhtar is a self-made man who holds a high profile in the world of Parisian finance. He is also suffering from an identity crisis in which the trappings of his conservative Islamic upbringing and Algerian origins are engaged in a maddening and absurd tug-of-war with the high-class French hedonist and womanizer that he wants so badly to be. Mohammed’s psychological integrity, which erodes as the novel progresses, is just one of the intricate layers of uncertainty in which Leila Marouane has enveloped her most recent novel “The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris.”
In fact, there is not much sex to speak of in this novel. Rather, the sexual life referred to in the title seems to be largely the fantasy creation of the protagonist (inasmuch as we can even identify him). There are a few things that we are told about Mohammed – he had his name legally changed to ‘Basil Tocquard’ to enhance the social benefits of his naturally lighter skin, he hides his assumed western identity from his family, and, for all his aspirations to be a bon vivant and Cassanova, he is still a virgin at mid-life. The novel follows the gradual unraveling of the protagonist’s ego as a result of his trying to accommodate so many contradictory demands.
Near the beginning of the novel, Mohammed/Basil buys himself an apartment in a swanky neighborhood of Paris, and furnishes it with all the fine things that one would expect a man of his stature to have. This apartment is also to be his love nest, symbolizing his break with years of scrupulously observing devotion to family and religion. However, the break never really happens. Firstly, he is unable to escape Sunday lunches at his doting mother’s house. As the novel progresses, he shows up to this ritual event later and later until he stops going altogether, even unplugging his phone to avoid his mother’s plaintive phone calls and washing down benzodiazepine pills with expensive scotch to assuage his feelings of guilt and anxiety. The mother’s phone calls are a device used very effectively by Marouane to ratchet up the tension throughout the novel.
As if this was not enough, Monsieur Tocquard’s attempts at carousing go almost nowhere. The women he does manage to bring back to his apartment – and one in particular – refuse to go all the way, frustrating the search for manhood, as it were. The protagonist’s relationship with women in general is haunted by a mysterious figure named Lubna Minar, a writer who steals the souls of her acquaintances in order to write about them. Indeed, Mohammed’s cousin Driss warns him that everyone she has written about ends up going mad.
In all, “The Sexual Life” is a meditation on how several different issues can converge into one big existential dilemma. In this case, religious conservatism and all of its attendant preconceptions, prescriptions and taboos, are locked in a sort of helpless dialectic with the supposed sexual permissiveness and materialism of Western European liberal society, which is played out through the moral confusion of one unfortunate man. Of course, in a novel full of sleights of hand, Marouane forces the reader to share her protagonist’s uncertainty about himself. Indeed, every chapter begins with “he said” or “he continued,” indicating that Mohammaed/Basil is not even directly the narrator of this story. Furthermore, no solid indication is given about whom this narrator might be. Can he/she be trusted with the story being told by the protagonist anymore than the megalomaniacal protagonist himself can be trusted? This structural uncertainty is delightful as it adds depth and even a great deal of seriousness to an otherwise very humorous tale about one man’s misadventures. While it is entirely acceptable to laugh at Basil Tocquard and his sexual anxieties, his dilemma nevertheless draws empathy from the reader.