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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Sexual Life of an
Islamist in Paris

Leïla Marouane

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To purchase The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris

Title: The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
Author: Leïla Marouane
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 221 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris - US
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris - UK
The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris - Canada
La vie sexuelle d'un islamiste à Paris - Canada
La vie sexuelle d'un islamiste à Paris - France
Das Sexleben eines Islamisten in Paris - Deutschland
  • French title: La vie sexuelle d'un islamiste à Paris
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B : amusing concept(s), falls a bit flat

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The New Yorker . 16/8/2010 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Bathos follows, in a series of hilariously inconclusive sexual encounters. Less compelling are the postmodern high jinks, as the hero starts to fear that a female writer -- a stand-in for the author -- is turning him into a character in a novel." - The New Yorker

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris is, it would seem, narrated by Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, the son of an illiterate immigrant to France who has become enormously successful (he is: "one of the most sought-after financiers of all the banks in the realm") but has done so in part by distancing himself from his roots -- though going all the way (in this and that other respect) proves harder to do than expected. A key to his success is certainly that he does not appear Arab: changing his name to Basile Tocquard after he graduated from business school certainly made it easier for him to succeed in the banking world.
       Now forty years old, he still hasn't managed to transition entirely: he still a momma's boy, and tries to be the dutiful son (even as he keeps his name-change -- and much else -- from his mother); he's still a virgin, too -- held back by traditional Islamic expectations for/from women (they don't put out) and men (he was supposed to get married at a young age anyway). His account begins with him trying to break further free (and get laid), as he finally gets his own place, moving out of the banlieue and renting a posh Parisian apartment appropriate to his station -- though he is terrified until he's actually moved in that his Arabic roots will be discovered (leading, he is certain, to his landlord rejecting him as a tenant). Once in his fancy apartment he also starts trolling for a woman -- or rather many women, whereby he is emphatically not looking for someone to settle down with, but rather just wants to indulge in sex:

Women left and right, wham bam thank you ma'am. Advocates of relations without consequence or change of heart. No lifetime commitments. No procreation.
       But though he claims he wants to avoid his father's fate -- dying alone, from cirrhosis of the liver -- he can't quite keep from combining the worst of both worlds: he takes to drink, does his best to alienate himself from his family (ignoring his adoring mother more and more) -- and yet also doesn't manage to hook up with any woman willing to go all the way with him. What he finds and what he's drawn to instead are teases, Muslim girls who may not be entirely good (they'll even share his bed) but draw the line exactly at the point that he wants to go past.
       Mohamed/Basile's problem isn't truly sexual frustration -- even if the women don't please exactly in the way much hoped for, there's a fair amount of physical satisfaction along the way -- but rather being able to live up to a certain image. And Mohamed/Basile has an identity problem: he tells himself he wants to live the life of the white playboy-businessman, but deep down he can't escape his Islam(ist) roots (though he does claim: "A true Muslim, a good Islamist, is a hedonist ...").
       There would be enough story in this already, but Marouane layers on more: each chapter in the first-person narrative begins with a sentence noting: "he said", as if the account were being transcribed by an invisible someone, leading to the question/issue of not only how reliable the narrator is, but how reliable the transcriber is -- is s/he perhaps (re)shaping Mohamed/Basile's account to other ends ? And this transcriber may not be all so invisible after all: wherever Mohamed/Basile (himself a wannabe poet and author, to add to the complications ...) turns, at least when he's with the ladies, he hears about an author, Loubna Minbar or Louisa Machindel or something like that ..... Indeed, his admired (for being an: "inveterate hedonist") cousin, Driss, apparently also has some experience with this writer -- and claims she based one of her books on his life, appropriating his life in a way Mohamed/Basile fears his own life is being appropriated. Certainly he does not seem to be in much control, no matter how he tries to direct it -- unless, perhaps, he comes entirely back into the fold.
       Marouane's elaborate fiction has its appeal, but parts are underdeveloped -- notably Mohamed/Basile's professional side: it's difficult to imagine his success in this area, and it's barely touched upon. The mystery-author angle also has some appeal, but -- just like Mohamed/Basile -- the reader is simply left guessing too often and too much here.
       A novel with a variety of ambitions, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris winds up falling a bit short in most of them.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 September 2010

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The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Leïla Marouane was born in Algeria in 1960 and has lived in Paris since 1990.

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