Tuesday, September 11, 2012

There's Just Something About Amara Lakhous--Divorce, Islamic Style

I put this up on my own blog as well, but am excited to meet my year's goal of 4 books (Espresso Level). And there's still time in the year to try for that Capuccino level--delicious!

I read a lot of different kinds of books and I like a lot of authors, but for me the dead giveaway that someone has got my number is when I gasp as I come across a new work by them.

Such is the case with Amara Lakhous, the Algerian-born Italian who has written the work under discussion here. I first learned of Lakhous thanks to an Italian blog friend and for this, will be forever indebted to him.  Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio used the mystery format to introduce us to a highly diverse immigrant community on one Italian piazza. (I wrote about that book here if you're interested.)

So it should come as no surprise to us that Lakhous uses yet another time-honored genre, the spy novel, to form the basis of this one. I think, though, that there has probably never been a spy novel quite like this one.   

Christian, an Arabic speaking Sicilian, is approached to infiltrate a largely Arabic neighborhood called Viale Marconi. He takes on the Arabic name of Issa, which means Jesus. Meanwhile, Safia is a recent immigrant with aspirations of her own, and adopts the more Italian sounding name of Sofia. Everyone in the book has a double identity, which is not only a sly nod to the spy world and its cover identities, but also to the double nature of the immigrant/exile experience.

I've had a lot of interest in spy fiction for the last couple of years, partly because I have a very undeveloped manuscript in the genre which I'm constantly trying to figure out how to make better. But perhaps even more to the point here, it's opened me to a lot of thinking about the morality of espionage, its necessity, and so on. A lot of commercial spy fiction gives only a passing nod to the harm it causes, and I always like reading work that treats the effects on the lives that get caught up in it seriously.

One of the wonderful things about Lakhous is the way he is able to tackle serious questions in a disarming and even light-hearted way. An early example is when Issa is at a training retreat and says:

The absolutely first lesson was to use the English word "intelligence" rather than "espionage". Words are important.

I couldn't help thinking of this when a few days later I was reading the opinions of a former CIA operative, stressing the importance of intelligence. Like all euphemisms, it hides an uglier truth, which Lakhous knows and has Issa tell us as he weighs the pros and cons:

Spying is despicable work. You've got to meet a lot of requirements if you're going to be successful: don't look people in the face and have betrayal in your heart--as the Neopolitians would say. But I'm no fool, I can't pretend not to notice: Islamic terrorists do exist, they're not an invention of the media.

This deceptively simple speech is the whole situation--for the West, for democracy and for conscience. And Divorce, Islamic Style is laden with such contradictions and internal struggles.

To his very great credit, Lakhous does not set this up as a "The West against Islam" novel. For his other protagonist, Safia/Sofia is an Egyptian immigrant, an observant Muslim and a wife of an even stricter one. She struggles within herself to be a true follower of Islam, while craving some of the freedoms that the West has to offer her. But Islam itself is also about freedom and her internal conversation is about how stay faithful to this greater Islam and not to the sometimes very misogynistic practices that have been laid upon it.

As with his earlier book, Lakhous is very concerned to write about the immigrant mentality and what is behind it. In this he is talking about a much more universal mindset than that of any one country or immigrant group. The importance of what has been invested in one representative, the attitude of indifference to one's own personal comfort, the apprehensions and anxieties that fill the minds of those with both legal and illegal residency status--all are movingly shown and worth thinking about.

The book has a few flaws. The ending is a bit abrupt and somewhat disappointing, and particularly in Safia's speech there are some recurring phrases that may work better in Italian, but become fairly obtrusive in this story. These are, for me, minor things, though. The true gift of  Divorce, Islamic Style is its beautiful rendering of a tiny slice of the immigrant community in one specific neighborhood of Rome.