The Puzzle

‘Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’ Franz Fanon’s declaration in The Wretched of the Earth is quoted towards the end of La Discrétion, the new novel by French-Algerian author Faïza Guène. It captures the preoccupations of this gifted writer who, in five previous works of fiction, has explored the contradictory experience of growing up with Arab immigrant parents in the Paris suburbs.

Guène, now 36, came out of the starting blocks fast. After high school she went straight into writing and filmmaking, and at the age of 19 published her first novel, Kiffe kiffe demain. A short autobiographical comedy about a teenager living in a housing estate just outside the French capital, Guène’s debut was a bestseller and translated into 26 languages. Her films were less polished, looking more like home videos with ropey acting and few artistic flourishes, but they revealed much about the subjects that would fuel her later fiction. Her 2002 short feature RTT explored the impact of France’s statutory 35-hour working week on an Algerian family who could not afford to take leisure time; and her documentary, Mémoire du 17 octobre 1961, featured interviews with people who had been present when scores of Algerian independence protesters were killed by Paris police in 1961.

The themes from both these early films re-emerge in La Discrétion. Guène is clear about how the notorious events of October 1961 – a massacre the French government has long refused to acknowledge – have become relevant in her adulthood. ‘I have always felt that something could escape me’, she said, reflecting on her relationship with her parents. ‘Early on I wanted to understand their story. Thanks to the documentary, I was able to make my father speak for the first time about this event that was so important for me. I understood that each generation has its mission to fulfil, and ours perhaps is to collect these stories and recount them.’

La Discrétion marks an upgrade in ambition for Guène, shifting the focus from her own generation to that of her mother, presented in the fictionalized character of Yamina, who grew up in Algeria in the 1950s and left for France during the war of independence. The novel has a simple style and structure. Alternating chapters bring us back and forth from Aubervilliers in 2019 to Algeria in 1949, when Yamina was born, and subsequent flashbacks recall her romance with Brahim, a migrant worker who spent long stretches of time in France during the early eighties. Together they moved to the suburbs and raised their children: three daughters, Malika, Imane and Hannah, and a son, the youngest child, Omar. The novel is told in the third person, though it adopts the voices and viewpoints of the different family members, occasionally decentring Yamina as the protagonist.  

Yamina is kind and unassuming, portrayed with evident tenderness by Guène. She appears not to notice the subtle ways she is treated as a second-class citizen. Or does she? The novel raises this possibility without confirming it, allowing the uncertainty to pervade the atmosphere. Guène suggests that many women in Yamina’s position may have consciously chosen to ignore everyday racism in order to avoid confrontation. Passages like the following suggest the mother’s passivity could be an active choice:

Yamina does not see what the doctor’s coarse gestures communicate. She doesn’t realize that he is abrupt and efficient. Sometimes he even bumps her while lifting her arm to take her blood pressure, but she would never dare point this out to him. As if being in pain was acceptable. As if nothing about herself was serious. In a way, Yamina is protected.

She doesn’t understand in what geometry the world has placed her. Her innocence protects her from the violence of the doctor’s attitude. She does not appreciate the vertical relationship that plays out in the office of the doctor, whom she respects so much, for his position, his years of study and his knowledge. She doesn’t see that invisible ladder on which he perches above her every time he speaks to her.

It makes you wonder if Yamina isn’t doing it on purpose, as she seems incredibly deaf to the anger that calls out to her.

Perhaps, then, could it be she has chosen not to let herself be damaged by contempt?

Maybe a long time ago Yamina understood that if she started picking up on every little thing then it would never end.

La Discrétion’s style is telegraphic, with short sentences giving a conversational rhythm to the prose. This is classic Guène, evoking the sharp dialogue of earlier novels. But the register has also shifted to something more literary. There is not as much direct quotation; instead, Guène injects italicized passages that seem to be snippets of speech, although their appearance on the page does not necessarily coincide with their moment of utterance. Italics are also used to signal set phrases – idioms or marketing slogans:

Omar’s sisters are three radically different personalities. To express their distinctness, their father calls them: morning, noon and night. It makes Brahim laugh. He says all the time: Ah my girls, they’re like medication. It’s morning, noon and night!

These devices give Guène’s narrative a striking precision and authenticity. The story is told in a series of brief episodes – each chapter taking place in a different setting – which range from the Algerian war to a heated conversations on the streets of present-day Paris. The writing is concise but never cold, and the plot is interspersed with haunting descriptive passages, such as this account of Yamina’s visit to the dentist (or l’arracheur, ‘the tooth-puller’, as she calls him):

The sour-tempered man orders her to sit on the wooden stool and open her mouth. The little girl barely has time to take a look at the tools. In truth, there is only a small metal blacksmith’s pliers, unsterilised.

It is worse than the worst nightmare.

The man violently pulls out her tooth, it makes a terrible noise, Yamina will never be able to forget that noise. The tooth carries on crumbling, still stuck in the pliers, under the pressure of the puller’s hand.

Yamina screams, her head is going to explode, blood pouring down her throat. The voices, the noise, the hum of the market that drives you crazy – all of it gradually fades away. Little Yamina’s vision goes fuzzy, she feels herself fainting. She has never known such pain[…]

Now Yamina has to get home alone, walking under the blazing sun.
Until 1973 she would suffer regularly from abscesses and migraines – almost fourteen years, without anyone around her caring.

One day, in front of a pocket mirror, in despair, unable to bear the pain any longer, she hollows out her bloody gum with the help of a vine stalk, and pulls out a large piece, slightly black: the rotten bit of tooth that the tooth-puller left behind.

One cannot help but see some symbolism in the piece of decaying tooth that has been lodged in Yamina’s gum for 14 years: the rot of her ruined childhood, robbed from her by war and exile, which continues to gnaw away throughout adulthood. When the pain becomes too severe, Guène tells us, it will eventually force its way to the surface.

Yet if this is the arc of Yamina’s story, her children’s lives are different – particularly the three daughters. They have not inherited their mother’s meekness, nor her impulse to repress the feeling of cultural dislocation. In one illustrative scene, Malika ponders her arranged marriage and subsequent divorce, explaining to herself why she went through with it. Guène then draws back from Malika’s perspective and elaborates on the condition of first-generation immigrants in France – caught between clashing ‘codes’, and resisting erasure from the society they inhabit:

If older siblings like Malika came to terms with their old rules, it was because they knew the parents were doing the best they could. There had to be rules, after all! They had to invent them!

They had to organize themselves a bit, even if they were only passing through, even if they still believed in a miraculous return [to Algeria]. A life, even a temporary one, takes over. This is how they instinctively invented their hybrid laws, halfway between the home of their memory and this place where they now lived.

Because they lived here. They had to admit it now. It is true that it was going on longer than expected. It must be said that this country is good at stealing years from men, it is good at confiscating their hopes and burying their dreams in thousands of small coffins[…]

It’s not that easy to make the right decisions without understanding all the codes. They were afraid of losing everything, of compromising themselves. They wanted to stay who they are. They did not want to give it up. They refused to be erased, A SECOND TIME. How not to fear erasure? It’s what this country knew best to do, it had already tried to erase them, and now it was going after their children.

La Discrétion is one of several new French novels that explores such issues of belonging and marginalisation in immigrant communities in and around Paris (Fatima Daas’s fiction is another noteworthy example). Yet Guène’s work stands out for its historical sweep, spanning multiple generations and continents. Its achronological narrative connects the events of the 1950s to contemporary experiences, but it does so with a light touch, balancing the seriousness of the subject with a liveliness and humour that resists didacticism. In a memorable scene, Yamina and her daughters discuss whether it is possible to show respect for Algeria while also identifying with France. When one sibling speculates about moving to Paris and getting a job with a half-decent salary, her sister retorts: ‘Hey you, stop playing the smartass, Frenchwoman with her papers – ha! Listening to you youd think you’re called Nadine and grew up in Brittany. What did France ever do for you?

For someone who partly grew up in Brittany and has a cousin there called Nadine, I could well have been excluded from this joke, which is both funny and deadly serious. But Guène’s writing has the opposite effect: you laugh too, either with the family or at yourself, because the tone is one of gentle mockery rather than outright hostility. This wryness has had a peculiar effect on Guène’s reception, however. Her books have found plenty of readers, but they have generally been treated as insubstantial comedies – as if their wit offers an excuse for ignoring their indictments of colonial ideology.

During the novel’s second half, the four children are pursuing their own paths, with Omar causing the least friction – driving a taxi and finding a stable girlfriend. Malika has an administrative job in the Bobigny town hall, where she has already caused a ruffle by speaking Arabic to a man who struggles with French. There is a rule that requires employees to speak exclusively in French, and Malika’s colleague Bianca – who comes from Martinique – snitches on her to the boss. It strikes Malika as a disgrace to Fanon’s legacy that someone from a French-controlled territory has betrayed a colleague from a former French colony. Back at the family home, Yamina tells her daughter to ‘stay discreet’ and keep below the fray. Hannah blows up at this mention of discretion: ‘People are dead because of your discretion’, she bellows, ‘isn’t that enough?’

For the two eldest daughters, Yamina’s past in Algeria is an increasingly troubling presence. It acts as a psychic barrier as they try to build their lives in France. Malika’s response to this impediment is intellectual, whereas Hannah is gripped by an anger she does not understand and cannot channel. Bored one day at work, Malika scours the internet for details about the place where her mother grew up and where much of her family still lives. But while digging through the archives she realizes there is no trace of their surname. It makes her feel as if her life is full of phantoms – as if she too is a ghostly presence, inhabiting a story full of gaps and silences. Malika finally accepts that her biography is fragmented, her memory in pieces, her heritage an unsolvable puzzle. We do not know where she will go from here, but it seems likely she will adopt a similar attitude to Guène: she will keep digging, speaking to people, interrogating neglected episodes from her history, without assuming these will add up to a self-consistent whole.

If Malika’s reaction to feeling incomplete involves a turn outward, Hannah takes a contrasting turn inward. Towards the end of the novel she makes a breakthrough by seeing a therapist to whom she describes the nightmares she has had since she was a girl, in which a young Jean-Marie Le Pen snatches her mother away from her. The therapist is reassuring, evoking Fanon in her reply:

This violence is normal, it’s a part of you, of your history, you carry within you this violence and the humiliations of those before you so that in a certain way you are the inheritorBut you alone can’t carry all this weight. You alone cannot repair the affront.

Imane, the youngest daughter, is less preoccupied with these questions of heritage. By the end of the novel she has left home, moved into a studio in Paris and started a job at Maxi Toys. She is happy enough, but her difficulty in finding a boyfriend makes her contemplate her residual out-of-place-ness:

Too independent for some, not enough for others. She supports freedom of expression but that doesn’t make her Charlie. She is Muslim and feminist. She is French and Algerian. She has neither straight nor curly hair. She is vegan when it isn’t halal. She is modern and reactionary. She is everything and its opposite.

Imane lives in a world that is not ready to welcome her complexity.

In the final pages of La Discrétion we follow the family to the countryside for a surprise holiday to celebrate Yamina’s birthday. They get on well with one another, but the old woman who rents them the apartment is rude and remote. Is this a symptom of her half-deafness, or is it a sign of racial prejudice? The daughters play their childhood game, ‘Racist or Not Racist?’, but they cannot quite settle on an answer. Guène’s spirited ending is also an ambiguous one. She does not set out to crack the problems of inheritance, but the children’s trajectories nonetheless chart various escape routes, even as their environment grows increasingly hostile and intolerant. Yamina’s daughters are not likely to become political activists; but at the level of their everyday interactions, they enact the psychological break with colonialism at the heart of Fanon’s mission.  

Read on: Emilie Bickerton, ‘Just Remember This’, NLR 95.