The Life Before Us (Madame Rosa),
by Romain Gary (Emile Ajar), translated by Ralph Manheim
(New York: New Directions Pub. Corp., 1986)Summary:
"The Life Before Us is the story of an orphaned Arab boy, Momo, and his devotion to Madame Rosa, a dying 68-year-old, 220 lb. survivor of Auschwitz and retired “lady of the night.” Momo has been one of the ever-changing rag-bag of whore’s children at Madame Rosa’s boarding-house in Paris ever since he can remember. But when the check that pays for his keep no longer arrives and Madame Rosa becomes too ill to climb the stairs to their apartment, he determines to support her any way he can.
"This sensitive, slightly macabre love story has a supporting cast of transvestites, pimps, and witch doctors. Published by Romain Gary under the pseudonym of Émile Ajar, this novel won France’s premier literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, in 1975, making Gary the only author to have won the Goncourt twice (illicitly). The Life Before Us breaks many other rules, as well as the reader’s heart."
"The first thing I have to tell you is that we lived on the seventh-floor walk-up, so you can take my word for it that Madame Rosa, with all the pounds she had to lug around with her, had more than her share of daily life with all its sorrows and cares."
This is my hometown's (and our biggest college's) community read this year, so I thought I'd give it a try even though there was little chance I'd be home enough to attend any of the community events (which I've never done in the past even when I was home, anyway). Turned out to be better and more engaging at the end, but still didn't really speak to me. This may be partly a function of the translation, but I found the stream-of-consciousness, wise-beyond-his-years-but-still-prone-to-frequent-malapropisms style in which Momo narrates the novel off-putting. Rare is the author who can make a child or adolescent narrator both engaging and authentic, and I don't think Gary pulls it off here. The book seems a surprising choice for a community read, and I can't help skeptically wondering if it was selected more because a) it reminds us that the lines between different religions, ethnicities, and genders can be quite blurry, and b) depicts strong friendships, even love, across the lines, albeit among those who live somewhat outside the margins of French society. Perhaps I'd have enjoyed the novel more if I were reading and discussing it with a group, but as it was, I don't think I fully appreciated it on my own.