“Les Sauvages” by Sabri Louatah – flawed ambition

If you have not read Tomes 1 and 2 of “Les Sauvages”, the following review contains spoilers. Also, Tomes 3 and 4 will make little sense if you have not yet read the first half of the series. This review refers to both Tomes 3 and 4, which I bought combined in one volume.

This is the second half of the ambitious saga revolving round the Nerrouches, a family of Algerian “Kabyle” origin who have settled in the declining industrial French town of St. Étienne. Their excitement over the possible election of the first French President of Algerian origin, the charismatic, westernised and liberal-minded Chaouch, is shattered when he is not only seriously injured in a gun attack, but the would-be assassin turns out to be Krim Nerrouche, a basically decent but disaffected, drug-addicted teenager who has gone off the rails since the death of his father. A further twist is that he seems to have been somehow manipulated and groomed into committing the atrocity by his sinister, mysterious cousin Nazir, possibly a fundamentalist saboteur bent on destroying the prospect of a moderate Arab leader who might actually succeed in bringing together the opposing factions in French society.

As the plot developed in Tome 2, one began to suspect that Nazir may himself have been the stooge of ultra right-wing French fanatics seeking to eliminate Chaouch for their own ends, and stir up a state of emergency in which they can claim victory through restoring order.

The very ordinary Nerrouche family are also linked to “movers and shakers” through the fact that Nazir’s brother Fouad, a handsome actor who has gained national recognition and popularity through a TV soap, is going out with Chaouch’s daughter Jasmine. The brothers are pitted against each other rather simplistically as “evil” and “good”, although Fouad’s halo slips somewhat under the stressful situation in Tomes 3 and 4.

All this forms the basis of a promising and topical drama. Sabri Louatah is at his most authentic and engaging when creating scenes of family life, showing the relationships between characters caught between Kabyle tradition and very different modern French culture. He also provides a strong sense of place, particularly for St. Étienne and in the scenes set in Algeria. Critics have noted the book’s cinematic nature and, with film rights quickly sold, perhaps it was always the author’s aim to write “a TV series in book form” like one of his favourite authors Balzac, who of course had no option but to create drama in the form of novels!

Louatah has also spoken of his passion for American soaps like “ER”, which may account for the way “Les Sauvages” is made up of short scenes, often focusing on the relationships between individuals in quite banal situations, with much of the high drama conducted off-set, explained or implied after the event. This results in a somewhat fragmented plot, hard to follow at times, ironically defusing the potential for tension which is often such a strong aspect of a good film. The approach also enables Louatah to gloss over the implausible aspects of Nazir’s and right-wing Montesquiou’s scheming . Too often, with the clear exception of Fouad and to a lesser extent Chaouch, who is given to pontificating, the characters seem two-dimensional and too ludicrous to be either convincing or to arouse much emotion – the cane-tapping Montesquiou being a case in point, and Nazir another. By and large, the “baddies” are pantomime figures.

Although covering only a few weeks, the plot loses momentum continually, so that I often found the books tedious. My flagging interest was sustained by the author’s use of a hook at the end of each Tome to keep me reading, although I feared Tome 4 would fizzle out in an inconclusive ending, leaving the way open for Tomes 5-10……. Despite seeming something of an anti-climax, with one of the villains supplying an information dump which is not entirely necessary, since one has in fact already deduced or been told the salient details, the ending ties up sufficient loose ends to reach a satisfactory stopping point.

Louatah claims to be more interested in “fiction” than in “literature”, but, bearing in mind that I think he has a serious interest in portraying the problems of modern French society, “Les Sauvages” would have been more powerful and effective if presented as a single shorter, tighter novel, with fewer characters, more fully developed. As it stands, it will need a lot of work to convert to an effective film script anyway.

“Profession du père” by Sorj Chalandon – in this case Larkin was right.

At the funeral of André Choulans there are only two mourners: his long-suffering wife and son Émile, an artist who sketches the crematorium with an odd lack of emotion as they await the coffin. Narrator Émile then proceeds gradually to account for this tragic situation, going back to his childhood, the France of De Gaulle and the stirrings of rebellion in Algeria in 1961. As an impressionable youngster, Émile craved his father’s approval, believing his web of lies and fantasies, but fearing the violence which he might at any moment unleash on his child and wife. Émile suffers the embarrassment each year of being asked to write his father’s profession on a school form. How can he say that he is a secret agent? This is the latest in a string of professions he is too young to question: pastor, pilot, parachutist, judo expert and singer to name a few.

It soon becomes apparent that the bullying, manipulative André is paranoid but somehow manages to avoid exposure and medical treatment by keeping his little family unit in an isolated bubble. By turns amusing, heartrending, farcical, this is an intriguing psychological study. Émile’s mother is not simply a wife battered into submission, the victim of “coercive control”, but also seems to connive in the situation to avoid trouble. “You know what your father’s like” is her mantra, and years later she asks Émile: “Was your childhood really so awful?” So she occupies herself in making vegetable stews, abdicating responsibility for protecting her son if not herself.

Similarly, as he grows older, accustomed to André’s continual broken promises, to what extent does Émile really believe that his father is serious in involving him in a plot to assassinate De Gaulle, allegedly the former colleague who has ignored his advice and broken his promise to the French colonists in Algeria? Is the idea that another of his father’s friends is a high-ranking CIA agent called Ted, who is his god father too appealing an idea to debunk – even when Ted feels he should be punished for his poor grades?

Another intriguing aspect is the way Émile’s behaviour begins to mirror that of his father. Just as André wants his son to be an admiring acolyte to be subjected to rigorous military drills, a willing stooge prepared to risk daft escapades like delivering death threats, Émile seeks out a friend to share these exploits with, one who can be controlled and dominated as he is. Unfortunately, he chooses a “Pied Noir” boy who really does have a grievance against De Gaulle. To avoid crazed beatings and confinement to “the correction unit” of his parent’s wardrobe, Émile shows a convoluted ingenuity equal to his father’s when it comes to fabricating excuses.

It was hard at times to understand why Émile does not simply hate his father. Instead there seems at times to be, if not exactly love, that mysterious family bond, consisting in part of shared experience, conditioning and duty.

This novel is in fact quite autobiographical, in that Sorj Chalandon’s father was also a violent fantasist. The author has spoken of the “poison” in his system arising from the abuse he suffered, and the catharsis obtained from sharing his experiences by writing about them. He also suggests that the fantasy world was often exciting and enjoyable at the time, but for the violence.

I thought the novel lost dramatic momentum when it reached the stage of Émile’s adult life. However the tale would be incomplete without an account of how Émile eventually establishes his own life as an artist with the talent his parents failed to recognise and nourish. The contrast between his distorted childhood and the love he gives his own son is moving.

Chalandon is a brilliant novelist who deserves to be better known abroad.

“Le cordonnier de la rue triste” by Robert Sabatier – looking on the bright side

At first, I was put off by the twee sentimentality and the continual interjections of the coy narrator, who suggested that he might be one of the inhabitants of “la rue triste”. Yet although this short novel is not a page turner, it sucks the reader into the evocative atmosphere of a 1940s Parisian street where life goes on despite the Occupation. The last novel of the prolific French author Robert Sabatier, written in his eighties, this seems to draw on his own memories of growing up in Paris, orphaned young, apprenticed to the printing trade, drawn to literature and poetry, largely self-taught and ending up a writer.

Perhaps there is something of himself in the central character Marc, an unusually handsome boy who becomes a skilful cobbler, but loses the use of his legs as a result of an accident when pursuing his passion for running. This tragic event is somehow lightened not only by Marc’s spirit, but also the help given by an assortment of local characters: Jack-of-all- trades Paulo, resembling a comic strip character but with a talent for inventions, not least a workable wheel chair for Marc; Madame Gustave, the kindly manageress of a local bistro who keeps Marc supplied with food, or Rosa la Rose, the tart with a heart.

Every now and again, events begin to take a dramatic turn, but tend to subside like small waves on a beach. What makes this book worth reading is the poetic style, with occasional insights, such as how attempts to reconstruct the past often lack something “impalpable”, like “un reflet dans un miroir déformant”, whereas the strongest witness comes from the first-hand experience of writers like “Erich Maria Remarque”, author of “All quiet on the Western Front”. More than sixty years later, with an old man’s perspective, Marc observes with irony the individuals walking along “la rue triste” like automatons, a mobile phone to one ear, as preoccupied as if their lives depended on the call”. The gift of a TV from a grateful customer introduces him to the ludicrous world of shows in which the audience laugh at the presenter’s inane comments, and applaud not only the rights answers to simple questions but even seem to applaud themselves, like so many “performing seals”.

The novel is like an adult fairy tale, just about saved from mawkishness by some sharp dialogues and ironic humour. It also reminds me of the highly regarded “Stoner”, in its ability to capture the thoughts of “ordinary” people, and what it means to be alive.

“Le Blé en Herbe” by Colette – growing pains


Almost a century after this was written, it seems like the charming, bitter-sweet tale of Phil and Vinca, two adolescents who have been close friends and playmates since infancy. On their summer holiday in the shared house rented by their parents every summer on the Normandy coast,  there is ample opportunity for the inevitable unsettling change in their relationship mixed with the general tensions and confusion of moving from childhood to becoming an adult. The appearance on the scene of the sensual, predatory thirty-something Mme Dalleray serves to bring matters to a head.

The story is perhaps unusual for a female author in adopting for the most part the viewpoint of Phil. Insofar as I  can judge, it provides a convincing portrayal of a sixteen-year-old boy – obsessed with the female body, worrying about his future studies, frustrated by the unimaginably long time he must endure before he can reach twenty-five and be considered fully a man. We know less about Vinca’s inner thoughts. Mostly still a tomboy, she can switch rapidly to wearing a pretty dress and flirting demurely with a male visitor who admires her. Capable of strong emotional outbursts, she seems generally more self-controlled, and mature in her reasoning but also more passive than Phil, playing mother to her little sister,  prepared to stay at home and help her own ailing mother until she gets married. In this attitude, she is the natural product of the 1920s when the book was written.

Apart from the fact that it is quite well-constructed, what sets this story apart is the vivid evocation  of the shoreline and changing weather along the Normandy coast. Colette’s style is quite poetical, so difficult to translate well, but the meaning is striking and clear. The same goes for the minute description of complex chains of thought and  shifts in emotions. There are also moments of humour mixed with irony, as when Phil brings Mme Dalleray  the gift of a bunch of thistles, of a blue the colour of Vinca’s eyes. I was amused by the way Phil and Vinca viewed their parents as aimiable, unreal “shadows” (les Ombres),  to be pitied for never having been in love, and in Phil’s case finding it hard even to focus on what his father was saying.

Perhaps because the scenario is dated, the examination of Vinca-and-Phil’s love sometimes becomes overblown and cloying, verging on Mills and Boon. There is an element of chauvinism as in Phil’s sense of his right to sexual adventures,  while expecting Vinca to be “pure”, together with a kind of reverse sexism in the idea that women, whilst appearing to be dominated, may in fact manipulate men, or take the lead in the case of an older woman initiating a boy.

When first published as a novel in 1923, and later distributed as a film in 1950s America, where it was temporarily banned, this  was widely considered shocking, “immoral and obscene” because it broke taboos in dealing not only with the awakening of physical attraction between adolescents,  but also with sexual acts, although in such oblique and lyrical language that it is unlikely to cause modern readers any offence.  There is the further twist that the plot was “inspired” by Colette’s own affair with her sixteen-year-old step-son, which reduces one’s respect for her as both a person and an author, although it may contribute to the book’s ring of authenticity.

“Quatre Murs” by Kéthévane Dvarichewy – They mess you up your family….

As is often the case, although very close as children, four siblings have drifted apart into adult life. All they seem to have in common is a tendency to be troubled, even neurotic, perhaps owing to past repressed events which are gradually revealed.

In the prologue, they are brought together physically by the final visit to the childhood home which their widowed mother has decided to sell. This inevitably triggers nostalgic memories, but tension is aroused by the mother’s wish to give some of their inheritance in advance to her two younger and less successful children, the twins Elias and Rena.
The “four walls” of the title seem like a metaphor for the four adult siblings who need to decide whether they want to rebuild their relationships to prevent their family group from crumbling, once it has lost the “anchor” of the family home. To do this, they have to understand their relationships in the first place, which is hard in view of all the unspoken resentments, real or imagined guilt of the past.

A reunion with their mother two years later at the Greek holiday home purchased by elder son Saul creates a situation in which the four can reflect on the past, perhaps make a few confessions and ultimately begin to rebond. The author uses the device of taking a different view point in each chapter: that of Saul, the “intellectual”, successful but troubled former journalist; then Hélène, the internationally known creator of perfumes who has perhaps erected a false screen of not wanting either children or a man in her life; Elias, who has not achieved his potential as a pianist and is separated from his wife, and Rena who has suffered a crippling accident, leaving her dependent on a crutch, perhaps another metaphor for emotional clinging to others.

Is perception of the past changed by the passage of time, or does each individual see it in his or her own way? Memories take root differently, with hate linking us as much as love. Do only children, like their parents, make a fantasy out of having a large family, thus creating a heavy burden for their own brood of children? People worry how their children will turn out, what they can do to avoid mistakes in their upbringing, all the while finding it hard to see themselves as parents. Such are the observations produced by the characters’ continual navel-gazing.

There are some strong dialogues (sometimes hard to keep track of who is speaking), leading me to wonder if this might have worked better as a film which could also have captured visually the ambience of the childhood house, or Saul’s Greek retreat. Critics have noted the subtlety and “non-dits”, unspoken words, of this novella, so perhaps I missed some of the revelations. For me, these proved too fragmented, the details sometimes hard to follow, except when delivered in a melodramatic outburst. One could argue that the real drama lies in the reader’s freedom to speculate over what may really lie behind all the obscure hints and allusions. For instance, do incestuous feelings lie at the root of a character’s malaise? Can it be hard for the siblings in general really to love anyone outside the charmed circle of their childhood bonds, now broken without being fully satisfied by anyone else?

The French author may have been inspired by her Georgian heritage to create a family with parents who were originally Greek immigrants, one of Jewish extraction, but it was unclear to me how being immigrants influenced the essential exploration of family ties, except that feeling a little rootless may have encouraged the mother to foster excessively tight bonds between her children.

A potentially promising novella left me rather bored and disappointed with its underdeveloped characters, thin plot, and somewhat tame conclusion.

“Un certain sourire” by Françoise Sagan

Bored with her law degree course in Paris, drifting through a comfortable but passionless relationship with somewhat possessive fellow-student Bertrand, Dominque is intelligent and introspective, with a sharp wit, yet at around twenty still quite inexperienced and immature. So she is ripe for seduction by Bertrand’s attractive, worldly-wise uncle Luc, who claims to see in her a kindred detached, cynical spirit and suggests they embark on a short affair. She cannot resist the temptation, despite not wishing to hurt either Bertrand or Luc’s kindly wife Françoise who wants to buy her smart clothes and generally mother her.

All too predictably, Dominique gets more than she bargained for. Will the affair end in tragedy, or leave her wiser, shaken out of her pose of treating life as absurd, living as she does in the 1950s existentialist Paris of Sartre and his friends? With her spare, skilfully honed prose, Sagan captures a sense of place and the spirit of the times, also managing to evoke empathy with Dominique, despite her rather unappealing passivity at times and perpetual self-absorption. She sustains an underlying sense of nihilism buoyed up with moments of wry humour and false gaiety, ending on an upbeat philosophical note, which may prove short-lived.

Already a bestselling author at the age of eighteen with “Bonjour Tristesse”, Sagan is impressive in her precocious ability not only to construct a sharply observed, tight novella, but also to portray the psychology of a young woman without a clear sense of direction, who finds herself wanting what she cannot have, yet dissatisfied by what is available. The fact Sagan was so close in age to her subject gives the novel authenticity, although she was adamant at the time that her books were not autobiographical, rather captured moments of life.

Reading more about her life I learned how Sagan became addicted to alcohol and drugs, had a string of unhappy relationships, apart from with the fashion designer Peggy Roche, had to give up recorded interviews in later life after turning up once too often haggard, emaciated and in a confused state and died with heavy debts at the age of only 69. Perhaps she had more in common with her characters than she cared to admit, as regards an aching void beneath the brittle hedonism.

This novel is best read in French to appreciate the style, which adds depth to an otherwise slight tale.

“Sombre Dimanche” – a real life in Budapest


This is my review of “Sombre Dimanche”  by Alice Zeniter.

Although not explained by the author, the title “Sombre Dimanche” is inspired by the famous Hungarian song of that name, written in the 1930s with lyrics at first despairing over war, later portraying a man considering killing himself following his lover’s suicide. This song was widely banned in Hungarian jazz clubs for fear of driving people to copycat deaths, and later censored in its English version by the BBC, as likely to depress people too much in wartime.

Alice Zeniter’s novel is unlikely to have quite such a drastic effect, since the chapter of accidents which befall the main characters often seems too ludicrous to be taken seriously. Had this been written consistently as a social satire, or black family comedy, it might have been more effective. In fact, it is a hotpotch of “genres”, in addition to the above: part historical novel covering the period from World War 2, through the imposition of Soviet communism, abortive Hungarian uprising of 1956, collapse of Russian domination in 1989, and resultant messy embrace of western capitalism and “democracy”; part family saga; part “coming-of-age” novel from boy to manhood – interesting challenge for an ambitious young female writer; part literary tragedy.

The limitations of this novel disappointed me after having been so impressed by the author’s subsequent novel “L’Art de Perdre” or “Art of Losing”. This saga of a “Harki” Algerian family forced to take refuge in France after Algeria gained its independence because the head of the family had fought briefly for the French in WW2, gave me a more vivid grasp of the history of this traumatic period than I had gleaned from other sources.

“Sombre Dimanche” is by contrast quite disjointed. With the fundamental shortcoming of “telling” rather than “showing”, it flits confusingly between time periods and characters, lacking a clear narrative drive. Political events form a fragmented, unclear background. The overwhelming impression is of the passivity and what seems like spineless resignation to their fate of the main characters: Imre Mandy, his sister Ági and disconnected father Pál, offset by the cantankerous grandfather, who loathes the Russians, but the Germans marginally more. It could be that their wooden house, more suited to a rural setting and so incongruous in its triangle of garden in central Budapest, surrounded by rail tracks from which thoughtless train passengers hurl their empty plastic bottles, is a metaphor for a landlocked Hungary subject to waves of marauding invaders. However, one is mostly irritated by Imre’s lack of maturity and Ági’s lack of resilience, and left with the sense that they find a kind of contentment and security in their self-imposed isolation and narrowness of vision and life.

There are a few striking or insightful passages, as when the pubescent Imre becomes fascinated by a woman at the public baths, even when he realises that she is in fact quite old. Years later, the profound gulf between him and his German wife is indicated by her delight in having found the “real” Hungary in the vigorous men performing traditional dances in their native costume, whereas Imre can see the dangerous right-wing nationalism akin to Nazism in their behaviour. However, what may be intended as the climax of the book in the form of a self-exculpatory letter written by the grandfather fails to convince. Having been rendered speechless by a stroke, how could he write so lucidly at such length, and how can he show such empathy and humility after years of ranting, boorish tyranny?

Whereas Alice Zeniter’s Algerian heritage gave “L’Art de Perdre its authenticity, living and working in Budapest for a few years has given her the ideas for an interesting novel, but promising ingredients seem half-whipped into a flat soufflé.

Year of the Drought: rural cataclysm

This is my review of Year of the Drought  by Ronald Buti.

During the intense summer drought of 1976, which all who lived through it can never forget, thirteen-year-old Gus is growing up on the family farm in French-speaking Switzerland. In what seems at first like a slow-burning, even somewhat bland “coming of age” novel, narrated years later by Gus himself, what really held my attention was the expressive clarity of the writing: the vivid descriptions of the merciless, monotonous heat, the parching of the countryside; the close observations of the working of a farm, the unrelenting hard labour, and vulnerability of the business, in particular the chicken shed in which Gus’s father has borrowed heavily to invest; the gradual revelation of relationships within what initially seems a stable family, seen through the eyes of an unusually thoughtful and perceptive boy, still too young to understand fully what is going on.

For Gus, his father Jean is a rock, unflagging in his physical and mental strength. A peasant at heart, there is a certain rigidity in his attitudes, yet also signs of his essential decency in, for instance, his decision to employ a simple-minded relative Rudy, who would otherwise have been consigned to an asylum which would have driven him totally mad, whereas on the farm he can at least be useful. Jean clearly loves his graceful, child-like wife, yet fails to see her needs, as, married too young, she slaves away at household tasks, too busy to show Gus the love and attention he craves, and with tell-tale sign of stress in the perpetual respiratory problems which may well be psychosomatic.

Apart from helping on the farm, Gus spends his summer caring for the stray dove which has lost its wings in a mishap, exercising Bagatelle, his grandfather’s semi-catatonic, incontinent old draught horse (whose droppings he has to collect), sparring with his disdainful elder sister Léa, half-playing, half-fumbling with the quirky adolescent Mado who pursues him with persistence, all the while slipping into a cartoon-like fantasy world. There is a good deal of irony and humour in all this, as when Gus imagines that the giant, windowless chicken incubator is a mysterious distant planet whose toxic atmosphere contains mutant bacteria with the power to penetrate his tissues in the cunning intention of assuming his appearance.

In reality, it is his stable world that is penetrated by the arrival of his mother’s new friend Cécile, the provocative, opinionated sun-tanned hippy, supposedly needing a place to stay after splitting up with her husband. The story then gathers pace and builds inexorably to a crisis worthy of Thomas Hardy in his darkest mood, or a Greek tragedy. I found the final chapter something of an anti-climax, but perhaps as “the calm after the storm” it was effective. If it struck a note of resignation, a sense of our insignificance in the scale of things, that is maybe what the author intended.

Le Train by Georges Simenon

This is my review of  “The Train”   by Georges Simenon.

This slim novel, not part of the Maigret series, establishes Simenon’s right to be considered one of the last century’s greatest writers, in fact Belgian rather than French as commonly supposed. With great clarity and concision, making the process seem effortless, he paints a vivid portrait of an unplanned snap decision to flee in advance of the German invasion of Belgium and France in 1940. He explores both the general sense of unreality, in which one’s past life recedes rapidly, perhaps to the point of appearing never to have existed, and also the freedom to experiment and to live in a new and different way that a disruption like war can bring. At least some of this authenticity must result from the time Simenon spent organising Belgian refugees in France.

Despite having a heavily pregnant wife and young daughter, with little experience of life outside the quiet, conventional small town of Fumay, Marcel Feron does not hesitate to abandon his radio repair business to join the hordes at the railway station clamouring to board the next available train. When the family is separated from the outset, wife and daughter sent to a carriage with the atmosphere of a dentist’s waiting room while Marcel is consigned with the other men to one normally used to carry livestock, he is not unduly concerned. Even when the train is split in two parts, and he has no clue as to his family’s whereabouts, he does not lose his cool. In fact, his calmness seems implausible, even unnatural, until one grasps that he has a fatalistic attitude to life, it would seem owing to previous traumatic experiences on a par with war, such as the memory of his mother brought home naked and head shaved as a punishment for fraternising with German soldiers while her husband was absent fighting in World War 1. Four years as a teenager in a TB sanatorium have also made him innately something of a self-contained loner.

At the same time, the experience of being a refugee en route to an unknown destination, of being abruptly uprooted from everything and everyone familiar to him, is in a strange way liberating. So, without ceasing to love his wife and daughter, he is able to enter easily and without any torturing sense of guilt into a relationship with Anna, the enigmatic, penniless young foreign woman who is clearly vulnerable without his support. He knows that their love has no future, but accepts the situation, simply trying to make the most of it. “Ce qui arriverait, je l’ignorais. Personne ne pouvait le prévoir. Nous vivions un entr’acte, horse de l’espace, et je dévorais ces journées et ces nuits avec gourmandise”. Quite what Anna thinks we are never told, although her own past troubles seem to have made her expect very little, other than to survive.

In later life he writes a secret journal of these events, kept under lock and key. He wants his children to read it one day, to realise he was not the conventional, unadventurous man, incapable of passion that they may imagine.

A final shocking twist at the end leaves one with a sense of ambiguity, uncertain and conflicted as how to judge him as a man. It seems that in real life, Simenon may have been a bit lacking in courage if not exactly a collaborator in France, which may have made him well-placed to invite us to empathise with a flawed man who puts pragmatism and self-interest above bravery and risk-taking.

Ulysse from Bagdad: Rendez-vous with nowhere


This is my review of  Ulysse from Bagdad by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt.

When a relative is tortured for no reason by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, teenager Saad Saad decides to become a rebel on the basis that if he is to be punished one day, it might as well be for a cause. On learning this, his eccentric librarian father introduces him to the store of “subversive” banned books he has hidden away rather than destroy as instructed. Following the violent deaths of his father and three brothers-in-law, Saad Saad abandons his law studies to support his family, until his mother orders him to travel abroad to earn enough money to keep them. So begins his Odyssey of trials and tribulations from Baghdad to his goal of London, loosely modelled on the voyage of Odysseus or Ulysses, with heroin-guzzling companions in the role of “Lotus eaters”, a one-eyed jailor for a Cyclops, a deafening heavy metal girl pop band for Sirens, the blonde Sicilian who, Circe-like, might just deflect and so on, the difference being that Ulysses was travelling away from war to reach home, whereas Saad Saad is obliged to leave his war-torn country to build a new life in an alien land.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt is one of the most widely read French writers in the world. A graduate in philosophy, he has a talent for applying this in popular terms to a variety of moral themes of current concern. I admire Schmitt’s skill as a wordsmith, no pun intended, and the quirky originality of his short stories in “Concerto à la mémoire d’un ange”, but here, in employing black farce to ease the bleakness of the theme of illegal migration into Europe, he has strayed too far into absurdity for my taste. An example of this is the dead father’s tendency to pop up at odd moments to deliver jocular homilies and wisecracks to his son. When the two hydrophobic natives of landlocked Iraq have to cross the Red Sea, the father relies on the spirit world to get him across, while Saad Saad resorts to demanding a massive dose of the heroin he has previously rejected to get himself to the far shore.

The author is apparently widely used for teaching texts in schools and colleges, and I agree that this novel could be an effective way of introducing teenagers to the moral dilemmas posed by the pressures for modern mass migration. Even what Schmitt fails to cover could be brought into the analysis. As it is, his focus seems to be on the artificial nature of current boundaries, the dangers of the nationalism they tend to create, the debt which the wealthy West owes the poorer countries it has exploited. The over-arching case for migration is found in the prologue and repeated continually, namely “the lottery of birth” which dictates whether one is born into peace, prosperity and opportunity or the reverse. At no point does the author consider the conundrum of how to implement controls on migration to prevent the destruction of the stable culture which draws people in the first place. The nearest he gets to questioning migration is the portrayal of the kind of London district in which a migrant is likely to end up: an overcrowded room with a view of wet, black chimneys coated in greasy pollution , surrounded by sex shops, smelly dustbins and vomit outside pubs.

The book strikes me as somewhat formulaic and contrived, in that it strings together, admittedly with some imaginative flair, widely known facts about the state of Iraq or the ruses and perils migration. So we have the toppling of Saddam’s statue, the attempt to escape from the country via a fundamentalist band or shipping stolen artifacts, the ploy of losing one’s papers, the frustrating limbo of the refugee camps and ordeal of overloaded boats in stormy seas.
Most of the characters are caricatures, implausible, like the father, or two-dimensional as in Saad’s sketchily drawn relationship with Leila. Too often, the players express their ideas in a kind of condensed rant. Saad appears to be a vehicle for the author’s ideas and wit: his “voice” is too westernised and objective in lines of thought and observations , perhaps because Saad has read so many “subversive” foreign books.“Ulysse from Bagdad