26 November 2014

Didier van Cauwelaert: : Un aller simple | One Way (1994)

Didier van Cauwelaert's Un aller simple (translated into English as One Way) won the prix Goncourt in 1994. Aziz Kamel is the narrator, with the exception of twenty-odd pages of Jean-Pierre Schneider's diary. It was published shortly after the government clampdown on immigration, and is concerned with the question of identity.

Aziz is named after the Ami 6 Citroën car, which crashed into traveller Vasile's mobile pizza van, killing Aziz's parents but leaving him an unharmed baby in the back seat. Vasile is so psychologically hurt by this that he doesn't drive again, although the orphan (born in France of unknown origin) is taken in by the travellers, renamed and given a false Moroccan passport.

So Aziz is brought up in a caravan in an area in north Marseilles, the kind of area where the residents welcome attempts by the council to give them a permanent dwelling because as soon as its finished and before they're allocated a property they rip out all the sellable fixtures, just leaving the tiling for the winter when they can make more money out of it. Aziz is keen to learn and enjoys the brief schooling he has, although the community want him to earn his keep, so he soon becomes an expert at stealing car radios.

Aziz is a gadjo (a non-gypsy), meaning he doesn't have full rights in the community he was brought up in. This means Radjo is more entitled to marry Lila, whom Aziz wants to marry, and whose 'honour' Aziz has respected by only having anal sex with her. However, Radjo is murdered before marriage: he has had vaginal sex with Lila before marriage, leaving the pathway clear for Aziz to marry Lila.

In theory. But before Aziz and Lila are married the future groom is jailed for stealing the ring. This is a frame-up because the ring is one of the few things Aziz has bought as opposed to stolen, although as he's a rookie buyer he didn't think of asking for a receipt.

Enter Jean-Pierre Schneider, a man charged by the government to repatriate immigrants such as Aziz, who hasn't renewed his (false) papers. Schneider has been assigned to accompany Aziz on the plane back to his home town and help him to find a job, only he can't find Irghiz, the supposed place of Aziz's birth, on the map.

He can't find it because it doesn't exist, but for reasons of his own Aziz plays the game and on the way over to Morocco and the first day there creates an aura of mystery and enchantment around the mythical Irghiz that has Schneider spellbound to find it. He even dreams of fulfilling his ambition of writing a book based around the adventure, and so make his wife (who is divorcing him) believe in his worth.

But then, the child is father to the man and soon roles are reversed and Schneider is being led up the (Atlas) mountain path by not only Aziz but the highly attractive and highly educated Valérie, a Moroccan courier Aziz has saved from discontented tourist dummies and had rather indifferent sex with. But Aziz is smitten and Valérie is all in favour of leading Schneider by the tail in the search for Irghiz.

Schneider is vulnerable in several ways: he soon falls for Valérie's charms as they make their way up the mountains, but a second illness strikes him and he dies many miles from civilisation, dreaming of love and literary success.
So it's down to Aziz to take Schneider back in a coffin, although his wife's remarried and Aziz has to spend virtually all his remaining government resettlement allowance hiring a van to drive the coffin back to Schneider's parents' ghost town in Thionville, Lorraine. The parents had disowned Schneider, so they're hardly likely to welcome his return, especially as a dead body. But Aziz's luck is in.

He has discovered that the van has been stolen from the Conforama car park where he left it, and using an Arab voice he anonymously reports (spending his last five francs on a public phone call) that Schneider has been kidnapped by Moroccan terrorists: the parents then express alarm and signal the catastrophe to friends and relatives.

As for Aziz, he's welcomed into the Schneider home, where he works on the man's notes to create the book he never published in his lifetime.

Very funny, imaginative, and highly engrossing.

My other Didier van Cauwelaert post:
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Didier van Cauwelaert: Jules

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