After I left a comment on her blog, Ann Morgan sent me a book! Since she’s the one who inspired me to start reading books from around the world, I was flattered and excited.
And a little nervous, to be honest. My comment was about sex in literature; I’m quite conservative when it comes to sexual content. I prefer to keep my sexual experiences inside my own bedroom, thank you, and I’d rather not read about yours. Some of this comes from my religious background: I’m Mormon, and believe very strongly that sex should be a private and sacred thing, not thrown around casually. Some of it comes from my marriage; my husband and I have an understanding that our sexual activities should be with one another (and not with a book or computer screen,) so we avoid porn. Some of it is because I don’t have enough of a “fourth-wall” attitude; I get awkward and think that the couple is going to notice me peeping in on them. And some of it is just because I’m so sick and tired of picking up a good book and having it ruined by an awkward attempt at sex—especially when I can tell the author just threw it in there in hopes of selling more books.
Anyways. Ann sent me a copy of The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris, by Leïla Marouane. She’s an Algerian author living in Paris (I counted it for Algeria, but it could have counted for France if I’d needed it to.) The book was an odd read for me—there are no rating systems for books, so I usually play it safe by avoiding anything with a racy reputation at all. This was definitely more graphic than I’m used to. But I definitely wouldn’t consider it pornographic, either. It dealt with sex explicitly, but most of the book wasn’t sexy. Most of it was just a grown man whining about how little sex he was getting. And when it did get sexual, it still wasn’t sexy. The narrator (an unsympathetic woman) certainly doesn’t make our main character Basile sound like a catch. Just desperate and pathetic.
All in all, it’s a brilliantly written story about culture clash, sexual obsession, and insanity. Basile Tocquard, the main character, is a Muslim Algerian living in Paris. He’s changed his name to appear more French, and he uses skin-whitening creams and various other practices to hide his origin, all as a means of escaping racism. One day, sick of feeling isolated by his religion (and mother), he buys an expensive condo and decides he’s going to spend the rest of his years having lavish orgies in said condo. After several weeks, he gets increasingly obsessed with sex and increasingly frustrated that beautiful women aren’t just falling into his bed.
As his frustration mounts, so does his paranoia about his ethnic origins being found out. And his desperation for a real (unimagined) sexual encounter. And his distance from his overbearing mother. And his concern about a mysterious female author he keeps hearing about (or meeting?), who is determined to ruin the lives of men by writing about them.
The real brilliance of the book is that by the time you reach the end, he’s just about lost it, and you’re really not sure which girls were real, whether his cousin is alive or dead, what his mother is really concerned about, and whether that mysterious female author is actually Leïla Marouane.
I enjoyed the book. As a Mormon, I appreciated Basile’s struggle between his conservative traditions and the culture in which he lives. I also appreciated how openly the author addresses racism in modern French culture. And as a reader, it was a bizarre puzzle trying to figure out exactly how crazy this man is, and exactly how much input is coming from him and how much is coming from the narrator.
Again, I appreciate Ann Morgan’s recommendation—and if you haven’t checked out her blog, go do it! ♦