Didier Van Cauwelaert, Didier Van Cauwelaert, , trans. from the French by Mark Polizzotti. . Other Press, $18 (152pp) ISBN 978-1-59051-086-5
Van Cauwelaert's tale of an orphan's quest for cultural identity won the Prix Goncourt when it was published in 1994, the year after France passed laws restricting immigration and the rights of current immigrants. Aziz Kemal is an immigrant himself, at least according to the false Moroccan papers he carries. In fact, he is French and an "accidental foundling." Raised, reluctantly, by the Gypsies who rescued him from the car crash that killed his parents, Aziz narrates his story with the breezy, elegant detachment of a double outsider in Marseilles. At times, the book feels more like a dramatic monologue than a novel, as Aziz steals car radios for a living, plays soccer and enjoys trysts with someone else's girl. But it also challenges ethnic and national identity in France: what is identity, the novel asks, other than a story we tell? When the immigration laws take effect, Aziz is deported to his supposed homeland of Morocco, a place he's only read about. Paired with Jean-Pierre Schneider, an immigration official assigned to accompany him, Aziz spins tales of an imaginary Moroccan past for Jean Pierre's files. Jean-Pierre is Aziz's perfect foil: he remembers all too well his own hard youth. In Morocco, the novel blooms deliciously into a buddy flick, a road trip, a love triangle and a metafictional comment on the reliability of narrators. When Aziz's narration is interrupted by an excerpt from Jean-Pierre's journal, the book is at its heartbreaking, hilarious best, perhaps because Van Cauwelaert is freed from his uneducated hero and allowed full use of high-minded absurdity, which he both revels in and pokes fun at.
Reviewed on: 10/27/2003
Paperback - 152 pages - 978-1-59051-200-5