The challenge, as well as the potential delight, in reading a novel originally written in a language other than one's own, is becoming accustomed to the flow of the writing as it relates to the traditions of the country of origin. Especially if, like myself, the reader speaks and reads only English - differences in culture, conversational quirks, viewpoints about gender, work, money, and even romance take some getting used to. Amara Lakhous, author of Divorce Islamic Style, was born in Algeria, speaks fluent Arabic, but lives in Italy and writes in Italian. While his novel has no particular literary pretense, it is a sparkling political satire set amidst a pseudo-thriller.
In alternating chapters, Christian and Sofia relate this contemporary tale. Christian, having been whisked away by the Italian Secret Service from his job as an Italian/Arabic court translator, 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 a veil. The two meet in a café situated in the Roman neighborhood of Little Cairo, each coming to use the public phones for regular reports to their families back home.
As Christian, whose Tunisian name is Issa, finds lodging, gets a job making pizza and makes acquaintances, his experiences expose the contradictions of multicultural Italian life and the absurdities of the War on Terror as it plays out in Rome. He is appalled at the conditions in which the people must live. Sofia's own rather hilarious awakening results in eager plans to leave behind her repressive training as an Islamic wife and become a modern European woman. At times the author's voice leaks through the interior monologues of the two, making them sound similar, but Ann Goldstein's translation of the dialogue between the many characters captures the music and cadence of both Italian and Arabic speech.
Satire is tricky; I usually find myself annoyed by all the absurdity found in the genre, which happened to me here. Though I was in agreement with the thinly disguised criticisms of bumbling secret service officers, governmental double standards for immigrants, economic policies, and rampant racial profiling, a few scenarios and plot twists went beyond plausibility. On the other hand, it was refreshing and educational to read about political dissent in a country besides my own.
This review is from the May 30, 2012 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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