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Shumona Sinha. Assommons les pauvres!

Shumona Sinha. Assommons les pauvres! Paris. Editions de l'Olivier. 2011. ISBN 9782879297866

Shumona Sinha was a prizewinning poet in Bengali before moving to France ten years ago. This is her second novel in French. The title is taken from a prose poem of Baudelaire's, translated as "Let's beat up the poor." The narrator, like the author herself until recently, works as an interpreter in a government service investigating the claims of refugees for asylum in France. She is torn between sympathy for these refugees and her desire to be part of a more elitist French culture. She feels different from the other interpreters and sits alone, reading a book, while they gossip. She is both aware of her skin color (which she terms "slate") and the attraction of the blond, blue-eyed woman with whom she works. (There is an element of sexual as well as cultural ambiguity in her narrative.)

Arrested after she hits a poor refugee on the head with a bottle, she tells her story to a police investigator, ominously named Monsieur K. He is quickly aware of how she needs to be different from the refugee clients with whom she has worked, which he misinterprets as hatred for the poor. Her gesture, however, rather like that of Baudelaire in his poem, is a way of making contact with those she both pities and scorns. The men scorn her as well, as a woman who does not fulfill a traditional role, and she knows the horrors of life in the suburban ghettos.

While she has chosen to come to Europe, the refugees from the subcontinent are the victims of politics but also of nature, Partition, and floods. They must recite stories to try to impress the French government. There is considerable humor in her description of how the refugees cannot remember the stories told to them by those who brought them to France. During one interview, however, she is aware that though the words are a ruse, the man's body language is sincere.

Assommons les pauvres! is a powerful portrait of the tensions of someone trying to fit into a different culture, who is both aware of her own cultural superiority and of the suffering of her compatriots. Sinha's style is poetic, filled--perhaps overfilled at times--with metaphors. She measures her words, as if rolling cherries in her mouth before chewing them. The government office is a "factory for lies."

Assommons les pauvres! has been nominated for several literary prizes. The novel has also attracted attention because OFPRA, the government office for protection of refugees, fired Sinha for going beyond limits in describing their work. OFPRA assumed that the writer could be identified with the narrator, and that lack of sympathy for the refugees was a cause for her dismissal--a sad commentary on how literature can be misread.

Adele King

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Author:King, Adele
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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