“One-way” by Didier van Cauwelaert – Fizzles out after a promising start

This is my review of One-way by Didier van Cauwelaert.

Aziz has never been accepted fully by a Marseille gypsy community, having been salvaged from a car in which his French parents perished in an accident. So when he presumes to get engaged to a beautiful gypsy girl, he is framed for the theft of the ring which ironically he has in fact purchased, admittedly from the proceeds of other petty robberies for which he has never been caught. His punishment is deportation to Morocco , his “official” birthplace. The young policeman friend who cannot help him out of this fix explains that, desperate to be seen to implement a new policy against illegal immigrants who break the law, the authorities have seized on Aziz as the first foreigner to hand who actually has identity papers, the irony being that there are in fact cheap forgeries. This is the author’s sardonic take on a controversial French policy of clamping down on immigrants, which apparently inspired him to write the book in partial protest.

Aziz accepts the situation with what may seem like a disappointing degree of passivity, although of course, if able to prove his Frenchness, he would be liable to end up in gaol. He forms an unlikely bond with Jean-Pierre Schneider, the gullible probation officer tasked with escorting him back to he fictitious birthplace which he devises on the spur of the moment. As Aziz, with his love of story-telling, compounds his potential problems by continually embellishing tales of life in a remote mountain community which does not exist, Schneider becomes ever more fascinated by it, perhaps as a kind of escape from his own personal problems of just having been left by his wife.

This short novel is certainly imaginative, and has been described as an allegory for the nature of identity, which can be imposed upon us, or fabricated by us as a mixture of reality and fantasy. Farcical and ironically humorous from the outset, with poignant moments, the tale becomes a tragi-comedy. Once in Morocco, it takes a surreal turn, with a complex plot, involving many unexpected incidents. The humour remains, as when we discover Schneider’s view of events, with his surprise over Aziz’s remarkably good French and spark of rebellion against his faith by eating with his left hand, but the storyline becomes too aimless to maintain my interest. Neither could I relate to or feel moved by the characters as the story progressed. The prolific author writes as the fancy takes him, thinking up bizarre or amusing situations, but not developing them fully, so that they fail to “add up” to anything or lead to any meaningful conclusion. The abrupt ending felt as if the author had found a convenient spot to dump his hero, before moving on to the next writing project.

The novel is good for practising one’s French if possible to read it in the original form, but otherwise somewhat unsatisfying.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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