Imbued with her hallmark humour and heightened sensitivity, Faïza Guène’s Men Don’t Cry (Un homme, ça ne pleure pas) is her latest offering to lovers of good fiction in translation, deftly rendered into English by Sarah Ardizzone. We witness a family struggling with exile and integration as experienced by Mourad, born in Nice to Algerian parents.
He is keen to escape the clutches of his well-meaning but excessively controlling mother who imposes traditional ways of thinking and living on her three children – along with copious helpings of home-cooked food – handing down community values and morality in a bid to fend off the potentially corrupting influence of the host culture, and to impose order on the complexities of modern France.
“Algerians are the Americans of the Mahgreb. Do you want to hear my view? If you hadn’t brought me here, I would see my family every day, and I’d be able to gaze at the lemon trees and almond trees I planted in my garden instead of watching Stop signs springing up alongside rusty washing machines.”
A family chronicle
Dounia is the rebel: she fights back at her drama-queen mother’s attempts to force her to conform, and dares to stand up to her father, Abdelkhader, an illiterate cobbler. An assertive feminist who embraces secularism, she finally turns her back on her family, becomes a lawyer, gets into politics and writes a book, shaming her family. To wash dirty family linen in public is the most abhorrent kind of treachery. “The little Arab councillor from the provinces was fast becoming the darling of the Paris elite.” Dounia is living the dream, though she pays a price . . .
The youngest, Mina, stays faithful to her roots by marrying an Algerian and happily raising her children. While Mourad’s worst nightmare is to stay stuck at home to become obese like a force-fed goose as his mother feeds him fattening fried food. He escapes and lives up to his father’s ambitions by becoming a teacher in the Parisian suburbs, “Solitude had led me to a love of books, and now I was going to teach French literature.” He is offered a place to stay by cousin Miloud who had arrived “two or three years earlier, with a student visa and a place at Paris-XIII University” and hung on “despite his provisional residence permit expiring.”
A Hustler’s life
Thanks to faking his CV and pretending to be an Italian, Miloud had landed a job as a swimming instructor at the piscine d’Auteuil. “There were some big fish about, believe me, cuz, with all those ancient floating millionairesses!” He lives in a luxurious flat in the 16th arrondissement with Liliane, the daughter of a famous French jeweller. She is from the haute bourgeoisie, has a butler and keeps Miloud in style, buying him designer gear and giving him a C-Class Merc, SportLine Saloon. “Still, you couldn’t stop Miloud from hanging his prayer beads or road-toll vignette, in the colours of Barcelona FC, from the rear-view mirror.” He is caught up between two worlds – simultaneously attracted to yet repulsed by what Liliane has to offer. Discrimination and disillusion hover in the wings. Miloud is living the dream, though he pays a price . . .
The Human problems of the colonial legacy in France
A paradoxical and complex picture gradually builds up as the tug of war between two cultures becomes acute, with the second-generation immigrant kids growing ever more detached from the culture of their first-generation parents as they struggle to do their own thing.
Irritations, quirky family antics and familial pettiness make for much hilarity. Men Don’t Cry is similar to a TV sitcom. Everyone can relate to it: you don’t need to be Franco-Algerian to identify with the universality of parental disputes, quarrelling siblings, upholding family honour, old vs. new, rebellious acts against authority, keeping up appearances, greed and aspiration.
Almost every family has a Del Boy (Only Fools and Horses), a Margo (The Good Life) and an Ummi (The Kumars at No. 42).
Behind the humour and Faïza Guène’s ability to capture touching pivotal moments there lies repressed pain, tears and perplexity, as Men Don’t Cry cleverly addresses the lack of understanding not only between generations within the community, but in the Establishment and society at large. Mourad’s handling of Mehdi Mazouani, the classroom troublemaker who is beaten up at home by his father, is particularly moving. Dounia and Miloud each sell out to the system one way or another, losing their soul in the process.
Guène’s writing is rich with passion as she balances depth with lightness of touch to convey generational conflict aggravated by cultural uprooting, the consequences of social inequality, the complexities of truth and the essence of what it is to be human. Dialogue is peppered with evocative language and streetwise expressions. Translating the hard-boiled slang of crime novels is one thing, and the rhythmic urban backslang infused with Arabic words spoken in les Cités quite another.
Arabic-influenced backslang dates back to the late 1980s when rap and hip-hop took hold, (France is the second largest hip-hop market in the world after the US). For many, La Haine (1995) remains THE landmark film – and is timelier than ever – about the underprivileged of the banlieue and anger sparked by police violence.
Much as equivalents could be found in London using, say, Jamaican patois, it would be a mistake and ring false. Sarah Ardizzone has clearly done much research into how to convey the vibrancy and linguistic gameplay of le verlan. She acknowledges the advice of poet Rohan Ayinde, in “reimagining [French backslang] riffing off multiethnic urban English” so that the freestyle dialogue holds true.
There are very likely semi-autobiographical elements to Men Don’t Cry, as was the case with Guène’s first novel, Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe Kiffe Demain), published in 2004 when she was nineteen. The story of Doria, a fifteen-year-old Moroccan living in the deprived Parisian suburbs, it became an overnight publishing sensation. Guène’s first novel is now seen as representative of the voice of a generation breaking into mainstream French literature, as was the case with the debut novels of two other precociously young women writers before her – Françoise Sagan with Bonjour Tristesse when she was eighteen, and Assia Djebar with La Soif (literally The Thirst, but called The Mischief) when she was twenty-one.
Men Don’t Cry conveys the conflicting realities of living in parallel worlds, exemplified by the Périphérique – the Paris ring road inaugurated in 1973. Despite promises to address what has been referred to as “social and territorial apartheid” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks in 2015, little has truly changed. However there is hope on the horizon. Small efforts build big things: French publishers and the literary community are increasingly embracing diverse voices which smash the stereotypes and show the lives of others in a new light.
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