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Banquet of Lies
by Amin Zaoui
translated from the French
by Frank Wynne
Marion Boyars, May 2008, pbk, 240pp
ISBN: 978-0-7145-3160-1, £9.99/ US$14.95
The noon-day demon
Amin Zaoui is a writer and bilingual scholar in Arabic and French. He is currently in charge of the National Library in Algiers, and is the author of five novels which have been translated into a dozen languages, but never before into English. Banquet of Lies is his first, and in a neat bilingual edition. The quote on the book’s cover, next to the image of a woman naked under a see-through “burqa”, is from fellow Algerian author Yasmina Khadra, who says Amin Zaoui is “a writer who does not accept that taboos cannot be overcome”. Perhaps it’s not quite a genre but there seem to have been a fair few taboo-busting, sexually explicit Arab novels appearing recently, as part of the resurgence of Arab literature in Britain. And it is a very fevered consciousness that drives this narrative. Koussaïla (or ‘Nems’, which in Arabic means weasel) grows up in a very religious family, direct descendants of Mohammad, in a big house “filled with scheming and jealousy and adultery”, in a “village mired in misery and hypocrisy, this soulless village where the men gave themselves over to fornication and the women to adultery”. So, perhaps, what choice does he have? “I spew forth the crude, lewd truths of my life or the things I have heard from the mouths of those who raised me to be god fearing and good. I love the truth of lies. And only Allah knows the truth, the supreme Truth . . . I swear these lies are true”.
But as his mother points out, “The scent of love is like the stink of crime . . . it cannot be concealed.” She herself is torn between her love for Nems’s father and his uncle. His father loves Nems’s aunt. His aunt’s husband fancies Nems’s sister. The corresponding rivalries and enmities are just as intense. Nems is brought up to hate Jews and roumis (the Europeans, whose books he nevertheless adores), and political hatred sets in after a coup d’État topples the first democratically elected president of Algeria.
As a young boy Nems eats with his left hand, which is unclean; this is a sign of shame, a divine curse and his hysterical mother ties it behind his back. His reaction is to masturbate with his right hand. When they go to the hammam, his aunt Louloua, his mother’s twin sister, “would play with my penis, soaping it and stroking it… She would even kiss my erect penis”. Unsurprisingly, he falls for her, and on 19th June 1965, the day of the coup, he has sex for the first time, with aunt Louloua, setting up a template: “I learned to hate soldiers and to love making love to women much older than me.”
This template leads him through affairs with Rosa the nun, Madame Loriot, his French teacher’s wife, the cleaning lady (or is she the matron?) in the sick bay of his boarding school, a French woman he encounters in a cemetery and eventually, perhaps inevitably, with prostitutes in a brothel. A couple of younger women also appear in the form of his cousin Jade and a German woman he meets at a conference, but they arouse disgust (especially their habit of menstruating). His other love affair is with books and languages.
It is clear that verisimilitude isn’t the order of the day, though the narrator’s great obsession is with Madame Bovary, the great realist novel in which incidents are carefully weighed, in which every detail has a purpose. Time and place here are elastic; this energetic imagination, burning with rage and sensuality, is almost all we have to hang on to. Why is this voice, this drive not enough? Perhaps it would help if the sex were sexier, more subversive or led somewhere? If there was humour to go with it? (His fantasy about Golda Meir while on a protest march against her almost succeeds in this.) Perhaps if the voice were anchored in a wider world or had a clearer argument? In true oral tradition, there is much repetition and the reader is often invoked, but we remain curiously unengaged.
Even a rant needs cogency (and consistency: does he have six or seven sisters? How could he have the affair with the nun when he tells us she left the day after he first had sex?) Endless tantalising stories branch off but are left hanging, characters glimpsed but developed only in relation to this declaiming ‘I’ which risks tiring us by always telling instead of showing. An italicised voice (Nems in later life?) breaks in but puzzlingly disappears altogether (likewise a lone sentence about “Maurice” pages before we learn he’s the cleaning lady/ matron’s former husband).
Major political events and movements are taking place in Algeria (the narrator’s grandfather and his ‘friend’ are killed by Islamists, the MLN-supporting night watchman at his boarding school is jailed) but the links are barely elaborated so provide no framework (a brief outline of recent Algerian political events in an index would have helped here).
When Zaoui does follow through on something, as with Nems’ father who comes back from his travels to find his wife married to his brother and himself ostracized, it is very affecting: he goes to live in the “Christian mosque” and has a kind of afterlife as a wise man of the village, before beginning a fast that leads to his death. Zaoui can be a wonderfully sensual writer and when he sets a scene, of a sweltering summer’s day and “the noonday demon”, of being forever stuck in the sick bay at school or exploring the cemeteries, the detail can transport us.
It is a real treat to have a bilingual edition: the translator’s art is laid bare and the reader becomes critic, able to check any infelicity, mistake or omission (in translation, of course, success is invisible). Frank Wynne’s translation is a good one but, like the original, feels a little rushed and over repetitive (the narrator is always ‘slipping inside’, not penetrating, a woman, and cats are constantly ‘mewling’).
The most constant refrain is ‘peu importe!’; perhaps Nems is right and names don’t matter, he can’t think of the right word but it doesn’t matter. Should we then take him at his word – it’s all lies, a banquet of lies in a hypocritical, contradictory world, and a scattergun approach is the way to overcome taboo and explode repression. Is he in the graveyard or the woman’s bed? Does it matter?