[REVIEW] French Perfume by Amir Tag Elsir

Brooklyn: Antibookclub


Amir Tag Elsir is a Sudanese gynecologist living in Qatar; in an interview with Arabic Literature (in English), he says he plans to return to the Sudan when he retires.  An exilic quality in Elsir’s vision, together with a stripped-down style, recently prompted a Guardian reviewer to claim that his novel Ebola ’76 – also published in English translation last year, by Darf – lacks empathy, and that this author writes his characters with “apparent disdain.”  If this is true, then we might be excused for stating that such antipathy is an attractive feature (albeit a demanding one) of Elsir’s oeuvre, because he replaces humanist values and psychological realism with an unflattering critical perspective.  French Perfume is Elsir’s fifth book to come out in English.

When Katia Cadolet, a beautiful Parisian nurse working for a relief campaign in Zimbabwe, accidentally discovers that a foreign pharmaceutical firm has been manufacturing bogus malaria pills for export to Africa, she becomes an international celebrity and embarks on a publicity tour of the continent.  As Katia’s arrival in the Sudan approaches, a local administrator delegates responsibility for her visit to a retired railroad maintenance supervisor named Ali Jarjar, tasking him with securing suitable accommodations for Katia in the district where he resides, a working-class neighborhood called Gha‘ib (literally, “Occluded”).  Ali, a “tall, plump, and almost bald” bachelor with a trail of jilted spinsters in his wake, quickly grows obsessed with “the Frenchwoman:” he trolls her online; paints his house blue – her favorite color – inside and out, along with all his possessions; downloads, photoshops and prints pictures of her; spends funds earmarked for her fête on bridegroom attire; exchanges wedding vows with his pictures of Katia in a secret ceremony; and finally escorts the photos into the city and introduces them as his wife, who, he says, is expecting a child.  Utterly deranged, Ali is about to claim that spousal jealousy brought on his eruption into violence, accusing his victims of causing Katia to be unfaithful, characterizing himself as a cuckold (he reenacts a scene from a movie he saw in youth) – a role onto which, in his insanity, he projects the collective rage whose repository he has become, as he murders a “male jinn” in the street with a kitchen knife and stabs a photo of Katia, then gets arrested, just in time to watch the nurse herself descend from her car while he’s being driven to jail.

Ali’s running commentary on the ills of his society is the reasonable discourse of a man whose actions pierce the curtain of normalcy and expose the insane reality beyond it: “My cell phone rang briefly with what the screen termed a dropped call.”  Loneliness gets the better of Ali and infects his mind, and yet he’s lucid: “Being a madman who mates with a female jinn was much better than being a madman who weds no one at all.”  Ali’s plunge into homicide reflects the decline of his world, taking place along with the death of a community leader (“it was hard to fit him into the grave”), the battery of a legendary beauty (“‘I will kill myself before he touches me again’”), the forced conversion to Islam of a Coptic Christian (“he told them he was going off ‘to die’”), the indenture into the Luxembourg porn industry of a young emigrant (“he realized the size of the dunghill awaiting him”), and the fraudulent appointment to government office of a candidate whose only qualification for the post is a friendship with his predecessor (“‘I’m only a former combatant’”).  William M. Hutchins has translated the Arabic text into a blend of tech jargon, social satire, translatorese (Ali sometimes speaks like a clumsy English version of an Arabic poem), braggadocio, and storytelling that captures the dramatic and cosmic ironies at work.  With its quasi-folkloric antihero, French Perfume is a shaky video of a society in disorder, and one hopes that more of this excellent writer’s work will appear in English soon.


"An Unbearable Lightness"

My friend Leslie remarked via email that she was “somewhat jealous” of my impromptu adventure, to which I replied “don’t be.” There’s no envy to be found in fright, in flight, in a series of decisions made on the fly and without consideration of the future. I got into my black Mustang and drove west: the image itself evokes the idyllic car ride down an empty highway or lonely stretch of road, a cloud of dust kicked up by rear-wheel power–liberation unbundled like a black ponytail undone: hair unfurled and freed.

What the image hides is the reason why. Unless insane, nothing is done without reason though, at various points in my travels, I wondered if I had become unhinged, if the continued erasure of my life, dubbed “the year of subtraction,” had finally wiped away all traces of reality. Why was I on the road? I didn’t dare answer the question while behind the wheel, so I focused on an easier query: would I ever come back?

Therein lied true terror. I liquidated my life of its material possessions, sans clothing and a handful of books and journals and a car. I gave it all away. I remember the heat of that last week in July, in New Jersey, and how delirious I felt in our apartment, as if heat stroke ignored the full blast of the central air conditioning system. I thought about visiting my doctor. As I packed all of my books and most of my clothes–wedding suit included–and every object that might be coveted by another party, I became prone to dizzy spells.

Or merely “spells,” since the room didn’t spin nor did I feel nauseous. Rather, the “spells” made me feel lightheaded and discharged, for a moment, from reality, from time and space. I felt like falling. Every few minutes, whether I ran old junk mail and love letters through a paper shredder, or lamented over the beautiful books I meticulously collected over the years & easily dispatched to a “giveaway” pile, my eyes throbbed and dimensions around me pulsated–the walls rippled and the floor shifted. I thought I was dying. Death surrounded me. Continue reading