Monday, April 02, 2007

Andreï Makine, "Cette France qu’on oublie d’aimer"

Ray Taras, who regularly reviews contemporary world literature for the blog, turns again to the work of Andreï Makine, whose L’amour humain Taras reviewed here earlier this year.
Andreï Makine, Cette France qu’on oublie d’aimer. Paris: Flammarion, 2006.

Throughout much of the twentieth century it was said that the best omelettes you could eat anywhere in Paris were at number 1, Place de l’Odéon. For more than a century the Café Voltaire made its home here, and it became a celebrated meeting place for writers, artists, journalists, politicians. It was where the intelligentsia — Verlaine, Mallarmé, Gide, and “all the Americans in Paris” — came to drink, discuss, and dream.

The French publisher Flammarion has turned the location of the Café Voltaire into the editorial offices of its literature department. Recently it launched a book series by the same name, intended to recapture l’esprit français that haunts its premises. Authors such as Régis Debray, Jacques Julliard, and Tzvetan Todorov have written their reflections about various dimensions of contemporary French life and letters. One seeming parvenu to this select group is the Russian-born novelist Andreï Makine.

The short volume he has written for the series can be translated as “This France that we forget to love.” Those who have read some of the ten or so novels he has published since arriving in France in 1987 are aware of his tortured grappling with French national identity. In my view, the most shattering story he has narrated, revealing the disillusion of an ardent Russian Francophile with contemporary France, is found in A Hero’s Daughter, published in the U.S. in 2003. Here he describes a fictional Soviet reporter sent to Paris to interview people living near the Place de Stalingrad about what they knew about the decisive World War II battle in that city. In Makine’s novel the journalist could not, in the end, carry out interviews in the square because “nobody but Blacks and Arabs” lived in the area. Any recorded interviews would make the Soviet audience “think that we filmed this in Africa, not Paris.”

Makine’s extended essay for Café Voltaire doesn’t offer a much more nuanced approach to French national identity. The quotation taken from the book printed on its jacket is that “I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t believe deeply in France’s vitality, its future, and the capacity of the French to say ‘enough!” But, we may ask, enough of what?

For Makine, France’s greatest contribution to civilization lies in its intellectual life. He twists the question Stalin is said to have asked about the Vatican and writes: “‘Voltaire? Proust? Camus? How many divisions do they have?’” (p. 31). Immaterial divisions, Makine replies, but with a fighting spirit that matches all the world’s military-industrial complexes.

Makine admires France for all the habitual reasons — the arts, the way of life, the gastronomy, fashion, chivalry, the affection for verbs. He cites from a letter written by Pushkin: “I want to speak to you in the language of Europe” (p. 60) — le francais naturellement. There is the French winemaster who says “This is an intelligent wine. It wants us to talk about it” (p. 44). Makine adores France because it is where the preference for the cerebral over the natural, the artistic over the material, hold sway.

It is no surprise, then, that he decries the reduction of French to just one of the many vernacular languages of Europe. But it is the shackles of political correctness that this native of Siberia cannot tolerate. “Can we get up and start talking in a louder voice?” he asks rhetorically (p. 66). He describes the disconnect between official multicultural propaganda celebrating black-blanc-beur (“black-white-Arab”) and the private attitudes of the French. The same doublespeak and collective schizophrenia exist here as in the former Soviet Union, he observes.

Makine worries about the existence of taboo subjects, the absence of serious public debate on issues of identity, the erosion of free speech, the censorship by “professional anti-racists” — reasons why France is becoming unloved. He lashes out at “Decades of lies about France as multicultural paradise — multiracial, multi-denominational, multi-what? Multi everything. Too many lies and now the sovereign reality explodes in front of our eyes” (p. 97). Part of this reality is France’s proxénétisme — an intriguing, out-of-style term referring to an affection for all things foreign — which has forced the state to negotiate with leaders of street gangs engaged in violent disturbances, to tolerate drug traffickers, to recognize the wealth accumulated by car thieves, to excuse the behavior of les jeunes-des-banlieues. For Makine the lyrics of one rap song sum it up: “I’ll fuck France until she loves me” (p. 98).

The responsibility for this degradation of France’s stature lies less with immigrant groups and more with French-French (this hyphenated term is actually now used to refer to ethnic French). “France is hated because the French have allowed it to be emptied of its substance, permitted it to be transformed into a simple populated territory, a little corner of a globalized Eurasia” (p. 99).

Ah! we might respond to Makine, who may be too Francophile for our taste, there is the French national soccer team that all French people love. Black-blanc-beur has made France into a winning side — everyone boasts — notwithstanding the injustice of the ethnically-pure Italian side winning the 2006 World Cup in a match it should have lost.

But the thrust of Makine’s argument would have us not overlook another victorious French national squad, the rugby XV which won this year’s Six Nations Championship and will be a force at the Rugby World Cup starting in Paris this July. I may stand in need of correction, but as I reviewed the names on the 40-man squad no player had a North African name — an irony considering that French rugby is most popular in the southwest where much of the first wave of North African immigration settled.

The ethnic and racial composition of the rugby XV is more in keeping with Makine’s articulated view of French identity. It is also closer to the concept of Frenchness that National Front presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen embraces. As les présidentielles head towards the finish line in April-May, it is surprising that the conservative and socialist candidates have also emphasized increasingly nationalistic understandings of Frenchness. In his campaign conservative Nicolas Sarkozy has pointed proudly to his record as interior minister when he was responsible for expelling tens of thousands of illegal immigrants from France. In 2005 he attacked “scum” living in ethnic Arab and Muslim neighborhoods who took part in three weeks of violent protests about living conditions. His electoral promise is to establish a ministry of immigration and national identity that would oversee the propagation of French secular values among all immigrants.

Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal has also emphasized the importance of Frenchness. Instead of broadsides against France’s minorities — oops, officially France does not acknowledge that it has any — she has called on all residents to memorize the words to La Marseillaise and to publicly display the French flag on Bastille Day.

This Café Voltaire volume has raised contentious issues about France that have been echoed by much of the French political class. It has joined this Soviet-educated author in announcing “enough.” But Voltaire, the conscience of the French Enlightenment, would not be pleased.
Many thanks to Ray for the thorough and insightful review.

Ray Taras, professor of political science at Tulane University and director of its World Literature program for the past three years, is the author of a forthcoming book on xenophobias in old and new Europe.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

Recently, Taras also reviewed a work of nonfiction, Andrei S. Markovits' Uncouth Nation: Why Europe Dislikes America.

--Marshal Zeringue