As a professor at Cornell University, who has been actively engaged in diversity issues since I was hired 10 years ago, I am writing to express my concerns about the choice for the coming year’s Cornell Reading Project, The Life Before Us by Romain Gary.
At a time when the Middle East is engaged in a set of complex issues to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is crucial and a significant part of global consciousness as well, Cornell selects a book that mystifies these conflicts through constructing a sentimental relationship between a dying Jewish woman, Madame Rosa (Holocaust survivor and ex-prostitute), and her charge, Mohammed, or, more familiarly, Momo, a 14-year-old, deracinated Arab orphan, who, at the beginning of the novel, narrates “My country must have been Algeria or Morocco or some such place” (my italics). What we have here is the generic Arab, who when asked “Are you an Arab?” can say, “Hell, I don’t let anybody call me an Arab.” The message seems to be: What does it matter where Mohammed is from — an Arab is an Arab is an Arab or not — though by the end of the novel, once he discovers who his parents are, Momo identifies himself as Algerian but to no apparent purpose.
The narrator, who until the end of the novel is led to believe he is 10, indulges freely and usually without contradiction in both Arab and African stereotyping (“after all they were cannibals in Africa,” he says of his African neighbors in Paris). The reader learns, for example, that “Arabs always get a hard-on before anyone else.” Comic relief? I imagine that’s its intent, for Momo is trying his best to be a kind of Huckleberry Finn, employing what I imagine Gary takes to be Huck’s style, folksy and endearing, with a litany of grassroots homilies about life and death and the condition humaine. But whatever one can say about the racism in Twain, and much has justly been said, Twain immerses his novel in the race issues of the United States and constructs a white boy (an ironic extension of himself) to tell the tale, whereas Gary, Jewish himself, fabricates an Arab boy as narrator who completely avoids the race issues in France in 1970 (the time of the narrative).
In this vein, Momo, commenting on racism in Niger from information gleaned from one of the African characters, proclaims: “I haven’t had any trouble with racism myself ….” And, indeed, throughout the novel he encounters none, going to live finally with a perfectly liberal, bourgeois, white French family, after Madame Rosa dies. These folks adore Momo, perhaps because, as Momo states, “I have brown hair and blue eyes and my nose isn’t Jewish like an Arab; I could have been anything at all without changing my face.” But make no mistake. The Life Before Us is not the critical study of an identity crisis. Rather, Momo seems to delight in his identity slippage, which appears throughout the novel as an unadulterated advantage or simply as a platform for Gary’s aesthetic play and the reader’s amusement. But who, we might ask, is going to be amused at this kind of play?
Momo’s identity is inextricable from Madame Rosa’s and the already sentimentalized politics of the novel is distorted by that identification. Threatening the landlord, who is demanding back-payment of rent, Momo tells the reader: “… I promised him that he’d wake up one morning with his khlawi in his mouth because that’s what the Jewish terrorists always do, and they’re the worst devils going except for my Arab brothers who are fighting to self-determine themselves and go back home, and between me and Madame Rosa he’d have the sum total of Jewish and Arab terrorists on his ass and he’d better start counting his balls.”
It would appear Jewish terrorism equals Arab terrorism (and in that equation they seem to cancel each other out); in the end, the novel suggests, Jewish and Arab terrorists band together to fight in a common cause represented in this case by the landlord. Where these Arab terrorists “are fighting to self-determine themselves” is never mentioned nor is the location of “home.” In the novel, Israel only figures in Momo’s reveries as a place that welcomes both Arabs and Jews, where he and Madame Rosa will live together happily ever after in this fairy tale of Jewish-Arab bonding.
At a time when Cornell is forging a controversial partnership with Technion in Israel and proudly issuing its diversity statement, the selection of The Life Before Us seems particularly out of place precisely because its force is to deflect rather than engage the central issues of the Arab/Israeli and Arab/Jewish conflicts. The choice of the novel also seems particularly insensitive vis-à-vis diversity issues on campus, which are centrally concerned with matters of representation. That is, what does it mean for a French Jewish novelist to be representing the consciousness of an Arab boy in the wake not only of the Algerian war for independence, which is only alluded to in passing, but the Six-Day War, which is never mentioned?
How are our Arab and Muslim students supposed to read this novel? Where is their representation in it? More broadly, what kind of a message does it send to underrepresented “minorities” about their representation on campus? That is, what kind of a critical inspection did it receive in terms of the diversity baggage it brings with it? Finally, how will those leading the seminars on The Life Before Us deal with the problems of representation outlined in my brief summary?
For me, what the university endorsement of The Life Before Us means in terms of supporting diversity at Cornell is not good news.
Eric Cheyfitz is the Ernest I. White Professor of American Studies and Humane Letters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.