The Life Before Us

New Directions. Nov. 2022. 208p. tr. from French by Ralph Manheim. ISBN 9780811232418. pap. $16.95. F
Published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar, Gary’s best-selling 1975 tragicomic novel of an Arab youth’s misadventures amongst the denizens of Paris garnered him an unprecedented second Prix Goncourt, a once-in-a-lifetime honor. With streetwise naïveté, Mohammed—or Momo—narrates his experiences in a clandestine orphanage together with “a bunch of kids who weren’t necessary and hadn’t managed to get abortioned on time,” under the increasingly shaky care of Madame Rosa, an Auschwitz survivor and retired sex worker whose mounting struggles with the indignities of age make her “so sad you didn’t even notice she was ugly.” Ralph Manheim’s brilliant 1977 translation captures Momo’s revealing misconstructions and poignant tonal shifts in a feat akin to coaxing Huck Finn into speaking French. The spirit of tolerance cultivated among a chosen family of misfits, including a kind-eyed Algerian carpet merchant and a trans Senegalese sex worker and former boxing champion, gets its ultimate test when the boy’s murderous pimp father Youssef shows up with a 10-year-old receipt for Mohammed, prompting Madame Rosa to claim she has accidentally raised him as Moise, a nice Jewish boy.
VERDICT Tackling matters of life and death with disarming and often hilarious irreverence, Gary’s novel is a joy to read, even when it makes you cry.
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