27 March 2018

Romain Gary (Émile Ajar): La Vie devant soi | The Life Before Us (1975)

In 1956 Romain Gary won the Prix Goncourt for Les Racines du ciel. A writer can't win another Goncourt because it's not allowed. However, a certain Émile Ajar won the Goncourt in 1975 with La Vie devant soi (translated in English with the title The Life Before Us): the claim was that this was a cousin of Gary's, although it was in fact Gary himself, who didn't officially reveal the fact until it was discovered after his suicide in 1980.

La Vie devant soi involves Madame Rosa, a now retired prostitute for thirty-five years who takes in children born to prostitutes in the immigrant area of Belleville. Madame Rosa is a poverty-stricken Jew in her late sixties, and the other main character in the novel is the ten-year-old Arab Mohammed, usually called Momo.

Momo is far older than his years, which is partly a bi-product of the circumstances in which he lives by his survival skills, but in no small part due to the deception Madame Rosa has submitted him to since she 'adopted' him when he was three years old.

In spite of the religious and general cultural differences of their birth, Momo is devoted to Madame Rosa, to the point of looking after her when she starts to grow senile and have attacks of madness, paranoid that the Germans (in the 1970s) will come to take her back to Auschwitz. Momo sticks with her to the end, even cleaning her when she becomes incontinent, even shielding her from Doctor Katz when he wants her to die in an institution and she chooses to die in a cellar which she secretly claims as a kind of second home. Momo, who has developed a new maturity on discovering that his real age is fourteen and that Madame Rosa has sought to keep him for as long as possible, does all he can to see that her last wishes are fulfilled.

If the above sounds a little like a horror story, any horror is redeemed by the fact that Momo is the narrator, whose humour shines through, especially for his childish lack of understanding of some events and language. He says: 'Madame Rosa wasn't at all patriotic and it was all the same to her if people were north Africans or Arabs, Malians or Jews, because she had no principles.' (He means prejudices.) The untutored Momo mistakes amnesty for amnesia, and abortion for euthanasia.

Euthanasia is the key word here, and Madame Rosa is intent on dying with as much dignity as she can under the circumstances. In fact this can be said to be a novel holding high the rights of a person to die as they wish, not (as the medical profession appears to wish) as a vegetable. Madame Rosa is a few years older than Romain Gary here, although Gary once said that he had made an arrangement with 'the man upstairs': unable to face a future life of pain and dependence, he fired a bullet into his head five years after this book was published.

I've read a number of Goncourt winners, but this is one of the best so far.

108 rue du bac, 7th arrondissement, Paris.

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