The life before us.

“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.

romain gary

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.

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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.

la vie

Interpellation and otherness

Not only does colonialism embrace physical coercion, but also a set of beliefs to support it. It interpellates the colonial subjects by incorporating them in a system of representation by which the individual subjects come to internalise dominant values of the privileged part of society and think about their place in it in a particular disempowering way, which favours the colonisers. Interpellation, a term developed by Althusser, describes the way/s in which dominant ideas are made one’s own and how society determined views are expressed “spontaneously” by the colonised subjects. As colonial discourse also work through gratification (Althusser, Foucault), it makes the individual’s sense of worthiness depend on their representation of their assigned role with regards to the coloniser’s. We must bear in mind that discourses don’t reflect pre-given reality, but constitute and produce it.

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In colonised locations, natives are usually required to work on the coloniser’s behalf, thus the language of the metropolis must be learned by them. Teaching English in India was argued as necessary in order for the natives to take English opinions (Macaulay). The result is the so-called mimic-men (V.S. Naipaul): they learn English, doesn’t look English and aren’t accepted as such. They are anglicised natives. They are expected by the metropolis to identify themselves with the middle-class bourgeoisie of the coloniser rather than with the indigenous masses (Franz Fanon), and although it may seem to expected to happen that way during the first stages, this fact is usually reverted later on, once native intellectuals they gain perspective. It is the next step, when native intellectuals can be regarded as a threat for the metropolis and when they can rewrite history from a post-colonial point of view.

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The construction of otherness is significant for national representation, as identity is always defined in relation to something else. Borders are designed by people, and so are nations. They are fabrications, not natural phenomena. The myth of the nation serves the purpose of making people think of themselves as part of a greater collective, a sense of belonging that national symbols help to create. The invention and confection of history is central to the creation of nations and to colonialism. In reality there are so many versions of history as there are narrators.

Language and colonialism

The history of Europe, together with historiographical documents produced here, has been shaped by colonial interests. These colonial interests are the result of the ideology of imperialism, which assumes the right to settle, exploit the resources and attempt to rule the native inhabitants, mostly to fit Europe’s interests -and then to try and brush the consequences under the carpet by shunning the immigrants-.

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It was after the World War II that Britain lost interest in settlement, although the indigenous populations kept on being ruled by a European minority of small colonial elites, once the natives were dispossessed. India and Pakistan gained their independence from western rule in 1947, while the African colonies did in the 1960s. The process of recovering sovereignty and freedom from foreign rule is known as decolonisation, and was prompted to a large extent -in the case of the former British colonies- by the loss of power suffered by Britain after the disastrous WWII. After that, they pursued control without settlement.

The loose cultural and political denomination Commonwealth, which supposedly grouped together a number of countries with a common history of colonialism, and shared -imposed- history and language, is very well described by Shirley Chew: “a paradox sits at the heart of the Commonwealth -described as a free association of equal and mutually cooperating nations, it is drawn together by a shared history of colonial exploitation and dependence.”

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Furthermore, colonisation is perpetuated in the mind of people and in the tissue of society by the idea of the “lower rank” of the colonised, systematically implanted by the coloniser. Once they persuade a generation to internalise their imposed values, these assumptions get easily passed on to the next generation. Thus, language proves to be the most effective of weapons for the never-ending process of colonisation, as “it carries culture, values by which we perceive our place in the world” (Ngugi Wa Thiong’o). It does not passively reflect reality, but it builds its own. We can better see it in Brian Friel’s play “Translations”; in an Irish village there is a school were all the characters in the play share a common space and exchange their views. However, they are not allowed to speak Irish in this school. Some are even convinced that the old language is a barrier to progress, while others just want to learn English in order to flee to the USA. Two English men arrive with a mission; one is an arrogant and distant cartographer, the other, a worker of the toponymic department and an ortographer who seems friendly and is interested in learning the native language. Their mission is to Anglicise the place-names -and also to cunningly “redistribute” the land. The topographical names hide traditional stories which would be utterly lost after the original names are replaced and standardised.