“The life before us” is a very special book, not only due to its content, but also to the story surrounding it. It was thanks to it that, for the first time in French history, an author could circumvent the rules to win the Goncourt Price twice, as it can only be awarded once in a lifetime. “The life before us”, by Émile Ajar, won the same year it was written, in 1975. What the jury ignored was that the psedonym Émile Ajar didn’t belong to its impersonator, Paul Pavlowitch. The truth was only revealed in the suicide note left by Roman Kacew, better known as Romain Gary, who had already been awarded with the Goncourt price in 1956, and who was the man behind Ajar. Later on, he would explain the process of the creation of Émile Ajar in “Vié et mort d’Émile Ajar” -”Life and death of Émile Ajar”- (1981), which was published posthumously. Kacew/Gary/Ajar committed suicide on December 2nd 1980, at 66, by shooting himself. He left a note in which he stated specifically that his death had nothing to do with that of his ex-wife Jean Seberg the previous year, and that Émile Ajar was himself.
Writing under pseudonym was a habit for Romain Gary, and he did so under the names Shatan Bogat, Fosco Sinibaldi, besides Ajar and Gary itself. As Ajar, he wrote four works which became well known, and he ironically entitled the third one “Pseudo”. Paradoxically, Gary was accused of imitating Ajar’s style: “I’m a pseudo-pseudo!” he would later laugh.
“The life before us” introduces us to Momo, a child who lives in a run-down urban neighbourhood, Belleville Boulevard -Edith Piaf’s birthplace-. There is a high concentration of immigrants in it: North-African Muslims, black Africans from every nationality, Eastern-Europeans… They know and respect each other and lead their daily lives as anyone would. Momo lives with Madame Rosa, a retired prostitute of Polish Jew origins and who lived the WWII and was imprisoned in a concentration camp by the Germans. She takes long-term care of the sons of other prostitutes who are unable to tend to their children properly due to their jobs, and first met Momo when he was three.
Among others, we meet Madame Lola, a transgender prostitute and former boxing champion in Senegal, whom Momo is very fond of, as she’s very kind and motherly. Mr. Driss is a café owner, in whose café several important scenes of the novel take place. There, Momo regularly meets old Hamil, a street carpet vendor, for his lessons about Muslim culture and the Q’ran, as it is Madame Rosa’s wish for the kids to maintain a link with their respective cultures. This is attained through the means available: Momo is in charge of taking 3-year old Banania (Turé) to Bisson Street, where most black Africans live.
At the time, Momo is around ten, although doubts are raised about that and Madame Rosa, with whom he feels a very strong link, is in her late sixties, but very ill. Madame Rosa is quite a character; she keeps a portrait of Hitler under her bed, so that when she’s feeling down, she can remind herself of what she has been put through and cheer herself up just for having survived all that. Her famous sex-appeal has bidden farewell long ago and she has several ailments, some of which she tries to conceal, as they may hinder her life and that of her kids, including Momo. She keeps secrets, but Momo knows, and suffers. We will walk downstairs with Madame Rosa and Momo, and into Madame Rosa’s basement, where she retires when woken up by nightmares. The place is crammed with memories, Jewish paraphernalia and secrets; it is there where we will witness the most dramatic moments in Momo’s life.
In 1977, Moshe Mizrahi brought the novel to the big screen -Madame Rosa-, featuring Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa.