Thursday, May 31, 2012


Divorce Islamic Style, Amara Lakhous, Europa Editions, 2012, 184 pp (Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein)

The challenge, as well as the potential delight, in reading novels originally written in another language than one's own, is becoming accustomed to the flow of that language and its relation to the customs of the country of origin. Especially, if like myself, the reader speaks and reads only English, a translation must bridge differences in culture, quirks of conversational habits, viewpoints about gender, work, money, and even romance. Amara Lakhous was born in Algeria, speaks fluent Arabic, but lives in Italy and writes in Italian. It took me a while to get used to his style. I have not read many books translated from Italian.

His novel has no particular literary pretensions but is a sparkling political satire set amidst a pseudo-thriller. In alternating chapters, two narrators relate the tale: Christian, having been whisked away from his job as an Italian/Arabic court translator by the Italian Secret Service, is posing as an immigrant from Tunisia. His mission is to discover the members of a suspected Muslim terrorist group.

Sofia, a young, married Egyptian immigrant, is teaching herself Italian and aspires to be a hairdresser, although her husband requires her to wear the veil. The two meet in a cafe situated in the Roman neighborhood Little Cairo, each coming to the cafe to use the call center. They are instantly attracted to each other.

As Christian, whose Tunisian name is Issa, tells of his day by day experiences finding lodging, getting a job making pizza at the restaurant where Sofia's husband works, and trying to find the alleged terrorists, he collides with the contradictions of multicultural Italian life and the absurdities of the War on Terror as it plays out in Rome. He is appalled by the conditions under which recent immigrants must live.

Meanwhile, Sofia's story centers on her awakening to the repressive training of an Islamic wife as she realizes all the opportunities she now has to become a modern European woman. She is hilarious. At times the author's voice leaks through the interior monologues of these two, making them sound too much alike, but Ann Goldstein's translation of the dialogue between the various characters captures the music and cadences of both Italian and Arabic speech. 

Satire is tricky. I usually find myself annoyed by too much absurdity while reading an entire novel in the genre. It happened to me here. Though I was in agreement with the thinly disguised criticisms of bumbling secret service officers, of governmental double standards for immigrants, and of the rampant racial profiling, some scenarios and plot twists went beyond plausibility. On the other hand, it was somehow refreshing to read about political dissent in another country besides my own.

(Divorce Islamic Style is available in paperback by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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