The back cover of this book reads:
'Tu sais Charly, il faut aimer dans la vie, beaucoup... Ne jamais avoir peur de trop aimer. C'est ça, le courage. Ne sois jamais égoïste avec ton cœur. S'il est rempli d'amour, alors montre-le. Sors-le de toi et montre-le au monde. Il n'y a pas assez de cœur courageux. Il n'y a pas assez de cœurs en dehors...'
('You know, Charly, you have love in your life, a great deal... Never be frightened of loving too much. That is courage. Never be miserly with your heart. If it's full of love, then show it. Take it from yourself and show it to the world. There aren't enough courageous hearts. There aren't enough external hearts.') (My translation.)
It's Georges Roland who gives this advice to Charly, who is a ten-year-old French-born child from Mali, whose father left him when he was a month old, and whose mother has been a paid help to the elderly Rolands.
The advice comes towards the end of a book which begins shortly before Charly's mother is arrested by the police. From the end of the introductory chapter 'La Vie', the following nineteen chapters take place in one day, beginning at 08:00 and ending at 22:50. In this time, thoughts of the past and actions in the present vie with each other.
Charly – who initially has no idea why his mother has been arrested – decides not to go to school but to seek out his drug-addicted brother Henry. This involves a tour of the rather gruesome housing estate in which the names of places (blocks of flats, park, library, etc.) are ironically named after prominent cultural figures: Rimbaud, Marcel Proust, Colette, Guillaume Apollinaire, Berlioz, and so on. As Charly remarks of a school visit to the Musée National Picasso, in which a friend makes a joke about his father having a Picasso – a Citroën Picasso – 'It's to make you think it's beautiful.' Making his way through the tenements – though an area of dumped beer cans, used needles and drug-cooking spoons – Charly eventually finds Henry, who suggests that his mother may have been arrested because she has been without legal papers since her husband left with them.
It took me a while to warm to this precocious and rather goody-goody child and his limited, excessively hyperbolic verbal mannerisms heavily punctuated by frequently repeated colloquial or slang expressions such as 'La vache', 'craignos', 'bizarroïde', but (coyly) not a single 'putain'. But his (unsentimental) charm came through to me in his love for the slightly older schoolgirl Mélanie.
Finally, Charly is redeemed from any suspicions of mushiness by his brazen lies to the Rolands. Inventing a story about his mother having a bad case of flu, he tells the elderly couple that he a really good cook, and we find him in their kitchen confessing to himself that he has difficulty even pouring milk on his cereals. So he serves them up a plastic mess of overcooked pasta and rice embellished with grated cheese and raw tomatoes. George Roland's honest verdict comes after a few glasses of wine: 'dégueulasse' ('shit'), followed closely by his wife's 'infect' ('revolting').
Happily, I can't use those adjectives on this book.