13 October 2014

Fouad Laroui: L'Étrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine (2012)

Fouad Laroui's novel Les Tribulations du dernier Sijilmassi made it into the first selection for this year's Goncourt prize, but failed to make the second selection. His book L'Étrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine won the Goncourt prize for short stories last year, and this is probably an excellent introduction to the author's strange world.

Laroui is a French-speaking writer who was born in Morocco, has lived in England, and now lives in the Netherlands, and as a theme, national difference is prominent in a few of the nine stories here. Also prominent are questions of (sometimes mistaken) identity, (existential) confusion, the use of language, irony, and references (direct or oblique) to literature, philosophy, and popular culture. Much of this mix is usually expressed in a light and frequently humorous manner, with conversation – often including stories within stories – frequently an important driving factor.

'L'Étrange Affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine' is the title of one one of the shortest stories in this book of the same name. It begins with the spoken 'La Belgique est bien la patrie du surréalisme' ('Belgium is Very Much the Homeland of Surrealism'), and this more or less sets the tone for much of the book. Dassoukine is a Moroccan sent by his government on an urgent mission to Brussels to buy a large and much-needed supply of corn.

Unfortunately his trousers are stolen during the night and as his stay is very short he only has that pair. He also has an early interview, and because he's very tall he will have a great problem finding another pair of (even borrowed) trousers to fit him. As it happens, the hotel manager is very understanding and his aunt runs an Oxfam Solidarité shop a few minutes away on rue de l'Étang: she opens it for him to look at the wares. Rue de l'Étang translates as 'Pond Street', and the only pair of trousers that will fit him could well have been dragged out of a pond and dried.

So Dassoukine presents himself before the EU committee looking not altogether unlike a tramp, and the head of the committee is the man who the evening before mistook Dassoukine for a waiter at the hotel. The committee's decision is to give him a huge supply of corn, and he will be welcomed by a lavish reception when he returns to Morocco a hero: all due to his trousers, of course.

The title of the next story is 'Dislocation' and (rather like another title in the collection – 'Né nulle part' ('Born Nowhere') – is very appropriate for a work by Laroui. This time the story is distinctly Oulipian, and the paragraphs are like an ever-expanding language sandwich in which the original beginning and end of the sentence are repeated as more information is gradually added inside it, and that too is repeated, until the sentence (now a large number of sentences) is a paragraph over three pages long. What we are reading – as he walks home increasingly slowly to his wife  are the thoughts of Maati, who is a Moroccan living in Utrecht with his Dutch wife Anna. He's feeling foreign and dislocated, and philosophical, existential, literary and linguistic thoughts assail him, as does the thorny question of his adapting or not adapting. His dislocation is relieved by the loving Anna, who sees an exhausted husband, and after he collapses on the sofa she takes off his shoes while humming a song, and Maati seems to realise that he's reached home.

'Ce qui ne s'est pas dit à Bruxelles' ('What's Not Said in Brussels') has a couple of lovers – John the Dutchman in the Netherlands and Annie the French woman in France – having one of their many dates, this time in Brussels. But Annie, who muffles out the polyglot talk in the train carriage with earplugs, has decided to end the relationship, not realising that John has made the same decision. Two people, foreign to each other in more than one way, have in the past relished difference – as when John learns the names of trees in French and Annie laughingly thinks the Dutch equivalents sound like insults – but now they rehearse the fairwell speeches. Although they're never spoken, or at least they're never heard, and the relationship continues.

The above may suggest there's positive resolution in all the stories, but there's not, and Laroui's work certainly can't be described as whimsical or sentimental. In the playlet 'Le Quart d'heure des philosophes' (Philosophers' Quarter-Hour') Amir's threatening gun turns out to be only a water pistol, but his former philosophy teacher Sylvie has still been terrified by it, she still runs away in fear, and Amir himself – even though he's become a philosophy teacher – has obviously harboured a quasi-psychotic desire to avenge himself for the youth he feels Sylvie has stolen from him simply by teaching him philosophy. And then in 'Le Garde du corps de Bennani' ('Bennani's bodyguard'), the bodyguard smashes Bennani to a pulp in a drunken act of class hatred. Yes, there's a darker side to Fouad Laroui. For me at least, this introduction was encouraging and I shall look out for more of his work.

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