The Life Before Us by Émile Ajar is a heart-breaking story narrated by Momo, a ten year-old Arab immigrant to France. Momo, who lives in an orphanage run by ex-prostitute Madame Rosa, has seen things no ten-year old should see and is far too advanced for his age. Darkly comical and wonderfully poignant The Life Before Us deserves to join the ranks of rediscovered classics. Why no UK publisher has given its cover a face-lift and republished this wonderful novel is a mystery to me.
Momo, has a special place in the heart of the larger-than-life, Jewish Holocaust survivor Madame Rosa. The orphanage, a top floor flat in a shady part of Paris, is packed with destitute kids, all children of prostitutes. Chaos rules. ‘When we got jumpy, or had boarders that were seriously disturbed’, Momo explains, Madame Rosa would simply take tranquilizers. ‘She was dead to the world on those tranquilized days of hers, and I’d be in command to stop them from setting fire to the curtains.’
The world seen through Momo’s eyes is a confusing place, but he’s no dummy and in a charming childlike manner, he makes his own sense of things.
Madame Rosa said a child was dramatized when he’d had a drama, as the term indicates. When that happened, he refused to have anything to do with life, a condition known as artistic.
What ten-year old Momo lacks in formal education, he more than makes up for in savviness. A visiting doctor is shocked by the state of Madame Rosa’s flat; Momo pities him: ‘ I looked at him with my hands in my pockets. I smiled at him but I didn’t say anything. What was the use? He was so young, maybe thirty, and still has so much to learn.’
Momo spends his days wandering the streets daydreaming, stealing when necessary, but most of all just trying to survive. Drug pushers and pimps circle him like sharks. Slowly, Madame Rosa starts to lose her hair and her mind, and the ever-loyal Momo takes it upon himself to look after her.
The Life Before Us is sprinkled with colourful characters such as the pink silk besuited Monsieur N’Da Amédée, ‘the biggest black pimp and procurer in all of Paris’, the wise, caring carpet seller Monsieur Hamil who taught Momo ‘everything I know’ and Madame Lola the transvestite neighbour who works the Bois de Boulogne ‘because she had a car’.
Apart from being a darkly funny portrait of an orphaned immigrant boy and the underbelly of Paris, The Life Before Us is a scathing criticism of France’s treatment of immigrants, the poor and the old. It is a book that is gut wrenching and heart-warming at the same time; an unusual, funny and moving read.
The story behind the book is no less extraordinary. In 1975, Romain Gary, was a glamorous well-known, but ageing Prix Goncourt winning author. Gary craved a new start and decided to publish a novel under the assumed name Émile Ajar. The Life Before Us went on to win the Prix Goncourt, the second time for Gary, in principle impossible as it can only be won once. To put a face to the pseudonym, he enlisted the help of a relative who claimed to be mentally ill and living in an asylum. Miraculously, everyone bought into it. Only years later, when Gary’s suicide note was found, did the truth about one of the largest literary hoax ever emerge.
The Life Before Us by Émile Ajar (aka Romain Gary) published by New Directions Book, 182 pages.