8 March 2015

Azouz Begag: Le Gone du Chaâba | Shantytown Kid (1986)

Azouz Begag's Le Gone du Chaâba is an autobiographical work – or perhaps autofictional is the correct expression, as there is a great amount of obviously artificial dialogue – concerning a few years of his life in Lyon, initially in a bidonville outside the city, later in public housing in the city itself.

Le Chaâba is the shantytown with no electricity and very primitive sanitary conditions to which families of Algerian descent have come to seek a better life. Azouz Begag was born here, and the only reason the reader can work out that this book is set in the early 1960s – outside the knowledge of Azouz's age – is the fact that Azouz (the character in the book) mentions listening to the Hit Parade and Richard Anthony's 'Et j'entends siffler le train', which came out in 1961.

This is a novel about pride, prejudice and shame. And language(s). Azouz's family speak Arabic, and the novel is peppered with the words they use, and peppered with the French words used in Lyon – such as gone (meaning 'gamin de Lyon' or young boy from Lyon) in the title. The English translation (unknown to me) must translate the book as it can, although it can't be an easy task, just as Azouz's weaving between different languages and dialects is no easy job. The novel contains brief translations of words used in his family's native Sétif in Algeria, and translations of words used in Lyon that French people outside of Lyon wouldn't understand. As a young French kid born of Algerian parents, Azouz doesn't even understand such common popular French expressions as 'Qu'est-ce que tu branles ?' (lit. 'What are you wanking about at?') or the slang verb crécher meaning to live (or 'doss' is perhaps better here). He doesn't know the French for snuff and his Arabic-speaking father tells him it's 'tababrisi', although when Azouz goes to a shop to ask for tababrisi he meets with incomprehension, but soon learns that the pronunciation 'tabac à priser' brings understanding.

Azouz's parents are understanding and supportive of their son's desire to 'improve' himself, although his earlier schoolmates see him as something of a 'creep', and there's some conflict in that. However, his desire for intellectual knowledge triumphs, and it is with great pride that he learns that one of his compositions is the best of all his other (French) competitors.

In spite of the language conflicts this is not a difficult book, although at the same time it's surprisingly complex, and a joy to read.

My other post on Azouz Begag:

Azouz Begag: Béni ou le paradis privé

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