Identity and marginalization in Romain Gary's La vie devant soi and Moshe Mizrahi's Madame Rosa.
The only unambiguous chapters of Gary's life were his genuinely heroic actions as a pilot in the air wing of the Free French Forces during World War II, and afterward, his distinguished diplomatic career. Gary the writer is a much more elusive and complex person. He wrote works in three languages using at least four different pseudonyms. His most important writings are the novels he wrote under his "own" name, Romain Gary (already an assumed name, of course), and four works written under his most successful secondary pseudonym, Emile Ajar. This final alias was the only one to become incarnate, as it were, when Gary's younger cousin, Paul Pavlowitch, enlisted to play the role of the secretive Ajar in what was to become one of the great hoaxes in the history of literature. At the age of fifty-nine, Gary had grown tired of being the famous writer beloved by average readers for works such as the semi-autobiographical La promesse de l'aube, but disparaged by critics as being second rate with nothing new to say. The creation of Emile Ajar gave Gary the chance to be someone else, a much younger man writing in a daring new style. He wanted to be a witness to his own rediscovery under a new identity, to be read for the first time without the prejudices and assumptions of a pre-established audience that had kept him in the margins of the literary world.
One of the novels of this Gaxy/Ajar period is La vie devant soi (The Life Before Us), among the all-time bestsellers of French literature and probably Gary's masterpiece. Because he used a pseudonym in publishing the work, Gary became the only novelist ever to win the Prix Goncourt twice when La vie devant soi was awarded the coveted prize in 1975, the year of its publication. (The selection rules for the Goncourt stipulate that an author can win only once, and Gary had previously won the prize in 1956 for his novel, Les racines du cieL) Moshe Mizrahi's Madame Rosa--a French language film based on La vie devant soi and staring Simone Signoret--is almost as highly regarded as the novel, having won the 1977 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. For Mizrahi too, both the man and the filmmaker, the question of identity is of fundamental importance, and he was no doubt attracted to Gary's novel because of its cautionary message about the danger of oppressively rigid cultural identities.
The story of La vie devant soi purports to be the first-person narrative of a ten-year-old Arab boy named Mohammed (or Momo) being raised by Madame Rosa, who is an elderly, Polish Jew, a survivor of Auschwitz, and a former prostitute. They live high on the sixth floor of a run. down apartment building in the tough, largely immigrant neighborhood of Belleville, in East Paris. Momo has never known his mother, who was also a prostitute, and he has an especially intense bond with Madame Rosa, because, as he explains, "la seule chose qu'on avait ensemble, c'est qu'on avail nen et personne" (39), Through the naive and hopeful observations of Momo, recorded in his straightforward and unintentionally humorous style full of grammatical and syntactical errors, Gary exposes and condemns every sort of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia. Through it all, he systematically attacks the constructed cultural identities that tend to determine a person's existence and limit existential freedom. Although in one way or another, most of the principal characters of La vie devant soi could be considered "marginalized" members of society, in fact Gary's point seems to be that the rigid adherence to a fixed identity is the truly marginalizing fact of a person's life. For Gary, "[qui] n'a jamais admis la notion d'identite fixe" (Amsellem 225), that openness to the changing of identities in oneself and in others is a liberating and humanizing experience, one that, paradoxically, appears to be more easily accessible to the marginalized than to the more "reputable" members of society.
Much of the action in La vie devant soi takes place in the building and the apartment in which Madame Rosa and Momo live. Since it has no elevator, the apartment building itself suggests a certain hierarchy even among its marginalized residents, with more "respectable" people living on the lower floors, and the increasingly less-desirable apartments above occupied by more "dubious" "I characters. Operating a clandestine residence for the children of prostitutes, many of whom are illegal aliens, Madame Rosa lives fearfully and secretively on the top and least enviable floor, a source of great misery in her advancing years and declining health.
On the second floor of the apartment building lives a Monsieur Louis Charmette, a retired administrator of the S.N.C.F., the French national railway. He experiences the typical marginalization of many older persons, being largely abandoned and forgotten, barely subsisting on a meager pension. But he also suffers from an inflexibly proper sense of his own identity as a retired French "fonctionnaire," and he chooses to live in self-imposed isolation from the other inhabitants of his building, mostly Africans and Arabs. One day, after twenty years of passing Madame Rosa in the stairway without ever exchanging a word with her, Charmette decides to pay her a visit when he hears that she is ill. The sympathetic Momo keenly observes the sadness surrounding the man: "Ce Monsieur Charmette me faisait pitie, car on voyait bien que pour lui aussi c'etait rien et personne, malgre sa securite sociale" (149). Charmette carries around an envelope that once contained a letter, from his daughter, using it as a kind of calling card, pointing to his name mid address written on the envelope as if he needed to prove or insist upon his own identity. The conversation between the Catholic Frenchman and the Polish Jew is polite and minimal, but the reader infers nonetheless that this brief and touching encounter is a momentous day in the life of Louis Charmette. Since Momo has assured us that everyone in the building is aware of Madame Rosa's association with prostitutes and the fact that she survives by lodging their children (145), Charmette has no doubt had to put aside a lifetime of prejudices while putting on his best suit of clothes and making the considerable effort of ascending four flights of stairs to visit his neighbor. Old age and infirmity have accomplished a kind of liberation for Charmette, wearing away a cherished social identity that had prevented him from acknowledging the humanity of his neighbor, and by which he had only succeeded in isolating himself. This liberation from enslavement to one's identity is one of the key messages of Gary/Ajar in La vie devant soi.
One of the most wonderful characters in the novel is Madame Lola, a transvestite who lives on the fourth floor of the apartment building. Madame Lola is a former boxing champion from Senegal, who now works nights in the Bois de Boulogne. Momo marvels not only at her strength --she is able to lift a table by one leg (143) --but also at the wonderful strangeness of her identity: "Je lui disais 'Madame Lola vous etes comme rien et personne' et ca lui faisait plaisir, elle me repondait 'Oui, mon petit Momo, je suis une creature de reve' et c'etait vrai" (144). But Madame Lola is much more than a curiosity, a male with artificially acquired female features and a flamboyant wardrobe. She is also an extremely kind person who has a deep affection for Madame Rosa and Momo, and very strong maternal instincts, in his usual, unknowingly humorous style, Momo comments on the injustice of nature and society that seem to conspire to deprive Madame Lola of motherhood:
J'ai jamais vu un Senegalais qui aurait fait une meilleure mere de famille que Madame Lola, c'est vraiment dommage que la nature s'y ese opposee. 11 a ete l'objet d'une injustice, et il y avait la des momes heureux qui se perdaient. Elle n'avaient meme pas le droit d'en adopter car les travestites [sic] sont trop differentes et ca, on ne vous le pardonne jamais. (152)
Of course, to really drive home his point about tolerance, Gary is being deliberately provocative here--and perhaps stretching credibility just a bit--by creating a character that transitions from being a highly successful but unhappy boxing champion (144) to become a very elegant and even more "successful" transvestite prostitute. On top of that, Madame Lola's extreme kindness and charity seem almost superhuman. Despite her fatigue and her own uncertain finances, she renders every aid and comfort to her friends, and her financial assistance to Madame Rosa and Momo becomes essential to their survival. Contrary to being presented as a person tainted by vice, she is portrayed as a person of impeccable virtue. The film version makes the point very succinctly, when Madame Rosa declares simply: "Madame Lola est une sainte." But whereas he insists on the moral imperative to accommodate differences, Gary never glamorizes the lives of his marginalized characters. He introduces us to prostitutes who are wonderful people, but also to the reality that prostitution is degrading. For example, Madame Lola returns home exhausted and disheveled after nights in the Bois de Boulogne, but still has to rely on sleeping pills to get any rest because, as Momo observes, "ce n'est pas vrai qu'on finit par s'habituer a tout" (145). And then, Madame Rosa s greatest fear for Momo is that one day he too might end up on the street selling himself and she makes him promise repeatedly never to engage in the activity.
Though there is much to admire in the film adaptation of the novel, the treatment of Madame Lola's character is perhaps one of the film's biggest shortcomings. Instead of using a physically imposing male actor--someone who could be taken for a former boxing champion--the film features Stella Anicette in the role of Madame Lola. Anicette is African, and does have somewhat angular features for a woman, but she is much too fragile looking, too beautiful--in short, just too obviously female--for successfully making Gary's point about maternal, nurturing identity being available to men as well as women. Moreover, the viewer is not required to confront any prejudice about transvestism because we simply cannot believe the film version of Madame Lola could ever have had any male identity.
But the most important examination of the notion of identity in La vie devant soi revolves around the chaotic encounter of cultures that occurs between Madame Rosa and Momo, and throughout the apartment building and the entire neighborhood of Belleville. Madame Rosa is a secular Jew who speaks Yiddish, but also Arabic, since she worked as a prostitute in North Africa. As she boards the children of prostitutes, she tries as much as possible to raise these children in the culture of their mothers. For example, she has Momo take Banania, an African child, out to visit people along the African streets of Belleville so that he can learn to associate with people from his own cultural background. Momo has been raised as a Muslim, learning about his religion from Monsieur Hamil, an Algerian carpet seller whose right hand is always resting on either a copy of the Koran or a volume of poetry by Victor Hugo. (In his old age, Monsieur Hamil charmingly confuses the two, even in the Mosque, quoting religiously from Hugo's Les Chatiments, "Waterloo Waterloo mome plaine" [Gary, La vie 107]). Madame Rosa's apartment is visited by observant Muslims, as well as Africans who practice voodoo. A Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest circulate through the neighborhood, and a Jewish Dr. Katz is esteemed for his "charite chretienne" (30) by all the Jews and Arabs who live together along the rue Bisson.
Of all the cultural encounters in La vie devant soi, it is "this haphazard co-existence of Jewish and Muslim cultures" that is the most prominent, and indeed the one on which "the entire novel hinges" (Schoolcraft 114). The collision of these two cultures comes to both a comic and tragic climax with the sudden arrival of Youssef Kadir at the door of Madame Rosa s apartment. Kadir, who had lived as a "maquereau," or pimp, has just been released from a psychiatric hospital after eleven years of incarceration for having killed his wife--who was also his most profitable gjrl--in a fit of jealousy. Now in very poor health, he has made the arduous ascent to the sixth-floor apartment to embrace the son he left there eleven years earlier and for whom he possesses a receipt. During the course of conversation, we learn that Madame Rosa already knows the whole story of the murder of Aicha and that she realizes that Kadir is in fact Momo's father. She is panic-stricken at the thought of possibly losing Momo on whom she now depends so greatly. At first, Madame Rosa pretends to remember nothing of the boy left by Kadir eleven years earlier. But as the increasingly agitated Kadir presses her to produce his son and begins to eye Momo, Madame Rosa hits upon an ingenious and rather biblical substitution, one that she knows will put an end to Kadir s desire to embrace his son. She calls for the Jewish boy, Moise (French for Moses), who is her only other remaining charge: "Moise, dis bonjour a ton papa" (194). This deception sets off a poignant and hilarious conversation about race, religion, and identity. Kadir can hardly find the words to adequately express his horror over the thought that the Muslim boy he left with Madame Rosa has somehow become Jewish:
--Moise est un nom juif, dit-U. J'en suis absolument certain, Madame. Moise n'est pas un bon nom musulman. Bien sur, il y en a, mais pas dans ma famille. Je vous ai confie un Mohammed, Madame, je ne vous ai pas confie un Moise. Je ne peux pas avoir un fils juif, Madame, ma sante ne me le permet pas. (195)
Though Kadir is of Algerian origin, we gather that he has spent most of his life in France. In one of Gary's many clever paradoxes, he has this Arab character give voice to the typically European way of viewing the question of Arab identity. For example, though there are important Christian and even some Jewish minorities among Arabic peoples, Kadir, like most Europeans, seems to assume that "Arab" is synonymous with "Muslim" and "Jewish" with "non-Arab" when he, declares to Madame Rosa: "je vous ai donne un fils arabe en bonne et due forme et je veux que vous me rendiez un fils arabe. Je ne veux absolument pas un fils juif, Madame" (195-96). Kadir also has a very European apprehension of being accused of anti-Semitism, revealed in his inadvertently amusing formula: "Je n'ai rien contre les Juifs, Madame, Dieu leur pardonne" (196).
Throughout the encounter, Madame Rosa pretends to be ignorant of the true identity of Kadir's son, and she suggests that the Algerian Muslim may just be confused about his own identity. When an exasperated Kadir begins to realize that he is being made a fool of, he becomes more and more frantic, and begins to complain about being persecuted: "J'ai ete objet desl persecutions toute ma vie, j'ai des documents medicaux qui le prouvent, qui reconnaissent a toutess fins utiles que je suis un persecute" (196). With this declaration, Madame Rosa cannot resist asking him a question she knows will unnerve him: "Mais alors, vous etes sur que vous n'etes pas juif?" (196). Kadir's reply--in a novel written by a Jewish author only thirty years after the Holocaust--is more than a bit surprising, since it seems to trivialize the suffering of the Jewish people: "Madame, je suis persecute sans etre juif. Vous n'avez pas le monopole. C'est fini, le monopole juif, Madame. Il y a d'autres gens que les Juifs qui ont le droit d'etre persecutes aussi" (196).
It was perhaps passages such as this--and there are many in the novel--that led at least one critic to accuse Emile Ajar, the presumed author of La vie devant soi, of being an anti-Semite, himself, an accusation that infuriated Gary (Anissimov 542-43) who had lost many relatives in the Holocaust. But as David Bellos has noted, "the last thing Gary wanted to claim was that the Jewish experience was unique" (158). In his numerous writings about the Holocaust, Gary tries to make an important point: if the Holocaust was a unique occurrence in human history, then there is nothing to be learned from it, and ultimately nothing to be feared about the event, no matter how horrific. But for Gary, the Holocaust was not unique, and we had better learn from it, lest it happen again. He also rebelled against the idea that Jews should be restricted to one identity, as the suffering scapegoats of all humanity. He even insisted that in order to be fully human, the Jews had to have the same "right" as anyone else to be accused of persecution. Thus, though Gary strongly identified with the state of Israel, he also strongly identified with the struggles of the Palestinian people.
In order to convince Kadir once and for all that this Moise--whom she knows he will never accept--is truly his son, Madame Rosa rummages through a suitcase full of false identity papers she has kept for herself and her numerous children, to shield them all in case the French police or the Nazis or social workers ever raided her clandestine nursery. Holding two receipts for children--one Muslim and one Jewish--whom she had received on the same day eleven years earlier, she announces the key to the enigma: it is just a case of switched identities. She has accidentally raised Mohammed as Moise, and Moise as Mohammed. She claims that the Jewish boy (the real Moise) is now living with a Muslim family in Marseille. Humorously, she pretends to reassure Kadir that his son has had a proper Jewish upbringing: "Et votre petit Mohammed ici present, je l'ai eleve comme juif. Barmitzwah et tout. Il a toujours mange kosher, vous pouvez etre tranquille" (198). Of course, she knows perfectly well Kadir will not be "tranquille." The Arab goes from being distraught to being horrified. Madame Rosa tries to justify her mistake by making reference to an essential mark of identity that both religions believe sets them apart from others: "J'ai fait une erreur identique ... L'identite, vous savez, ca peut se tromper egalement, ce n'est pas a l'epreuve. Un gosse de trois ans, ca n'a pas beaucoup d'identite, meme quand il est circoncis. Je me suis trompe de circoncis" (198). Therefore, this sacred mark of distinction was of no use in keeping track of the boys' identities, and the plausibility of the accidental switch is heightened by the fact that Momo is the diminutive of both Mohammed and Moise (Schoolcraft 114). All of this goes right to the heart of Gary's view of identity, which he believes is acquired in the process of socialization --in other words, through nurture rather than nature. When Madame Rosa insists to Kadir that his son is now just "un peu juif' (199), Christianity gets dragged into this crazy conversation as Kadir protests that the boy is simply no longer his son: "C'est pas le meme! On me l'a baptise!" (199). This accusation is too much for the survivor of Auschwitz, who replies humorously: "Il n'a pas ete baptise, Dieu nous en garde" (199).
If a slight digression can be permitted here, it is amusing but nonetheless instructive when a literary critic notes solemnly: "Gary reste ambigu sur la question de la circoncision" (Sungolowsky 113). It seems that Gary was once asked by an Israeli journalist if he was circumcised. Out of respect for his mother's Jewish identity, Gary answered that he was, though in recounting the episode later, he acknowledged that in fact he was not. However, Gary's son, Diego, who was raised Catholic, was circumcised, which is not customary among French Catholics. Once again, we find that Gary's views and actions are contrary to any preconceived notion of cultural or ethnic identity.
In his film adaptation of La vie devant soi, the Israeli director, Moshe Mizrahi, also recognizes the Yonssef Kadir episode as the central event of the novel. In fact, by dwelling on the scene, he gives it even greater prominence than in Gary's story. Out of 265 pages of text, Gary devotes eighteen pages to the episode, constituting roughly 6.5% of the novel. In a film lasting a little over one hundred minutes, Mizrahi spends eleven minutes thirty-seven seconds (or 11.5% of the film) on the Kadir incident, nearly doubling its significance in relation to the novel.
But Mizrahi also makes some subtle changes in dialogue that go even further than Gary in deconstructing the notion of Arab versus Jewish identity. For example, in the novel, Kadir protests to Madame Rosa that he wants his son returned to him in the condition of the Arab boy he left with her, to which Madame Rosa responds: "Les etats arabes et les etats juifs, ici, ce n'est pas tenu compte" (199), But in the film version, Madame Rosa uses the word "etat" in the singular, declaring: "Il n'y a pas d'etat arabe et d'etat juif" which could be rendered as: "there is no Arab state or Jewish state," a very daring assertion indeed for an Israeli filmmaker in 1977, just a few years after the nearly catastrophic and very costly Yom Kippur War and before the Camp David Accords.
One can only admire Moshe Mizrahi's courageous decision to adapt La vie devant soi for his film, Madame Rosa. He would appear to be the ideal director for the project, because of his "hybrid of Jewish and Arab backgrounds ([being] an Israeli of Moroccan origins)" (Hayward 2051. Though his film could be criticized for being overly sentimental and for downplaying the more sordid and repulsive situations in the novel, the political, religious, and cultural daring of the work is undeniable. Geographically and temporally ensnared in the Arab/Israeii conflict, and Muslim/Jewish animosity, Mizrahi produced a film highlighting the novel's exploration of identity and marginalization. In a startling manner, the film undermines myths at the heart of both Israeli and Arab justifications of the conflict, exploding the idea that either one is a chosen people with inherited privileges. As Madame Rosa explains to Momo: "Quand on est dans la merde, Juif, Arabe, tout ca ... ca ne compte plus. Et si les Juifs et les Arabes se tapent sur la gueule, c'est parce qu'ils sont pas differents des autres." Thus, Mizrahi stakes out an all embracing neutral vision of the conflict as a kind of pointless fratricide of the marginalized, suggesting in the process that Israeli and Arab identities are not as clearly delineated as the two sides would like to believe. In this, he clearly demonstrates his understanding of and adherence to Romain Gary's liberating vision of cultural neutrality.
Gary's constant re-examining of identity was based on a desire for freedom from determinism. As David Bellos has observed, "Gary was most of ail an enemy of the various determinisms ... notably those derived from Freud and Marx. In his view, there was no iron law that says this has to lead to that in human affairs." (162). For Gary, a fixed, permanent identity, rigidly maintained, represents not only a personal loss of freedom, but also negatively impacts all interactions with others, as one forces them to conform to a predetermined role. The principal message of La vie devant soi and Madame Rosa is that all inflexible identities--imposed or assumed--cut us off from other segments of humanity, and are therefore marginalizing and dehumanizing. The characters of Gary's fiction, with their strangely unstable identities, are on a permanent quest for their own humanity (Pepin 12). Gary invites us to embrace them as he does, to accept them as they are, and to learn from them to explore our own human freedom to remake and renew ourselves.
Amsellem, Guy. Romain Gary: Les metamorphoses de l'identite. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2008. Print.
Anissimov, Myriam. Romain Gary, le cameleon. Paris: Denoel, 2004. Print.
Bellos, David. "The New Frontier: The Human Utopia of Romain Gary." Nowhere is Perfect: French and Francophone Utopias/Dystopias. Ed. John West-Sooby. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2008.152-67. Print.
Gary, Romain, ?apromesse de l'aube. Paris: Gallimard, 1960. Print.
--. Les racines du ciel. Paris: Gallimard, 1956. Print.
--. (Emile Ajar.) La vie devant soi. Paris: Mercure de France, 1975. Print.
Hayward, Susan. Simone Signoret: The Star as Cultural Sign. London: Continuum, 2004. Print
Madame Rosa. Dir. Moshe Mizrahi. Based on the novel, La vie devant soi, by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar). Lira Films, 1977,
Pepin, Jean-Francois. L'humour de l'exil dans les oeuvres de Romain Gary et d'Isaac Bashevis Singer. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2001. Print.
Schoolcraft, Ralph. Romain Gary: The Man Who Sold His Shadow. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. Print.
Sungolowsky, Joseph. "La judeite dans l'oeuvre de Romain Gary: de l'ambiguite a la transparence symbolique." Etudes litteraires 26.1 (1993): 111-27. Print
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|Publication:||West Virginia University Philological Papers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2012|
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