Just finished reading the first real book in French, La Vie Devant Soi (The Life Before Us), written by Romain Gary, the only two time Prix Goncourt winner, for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”. It tells a story about a little Muslim boy, Momo, lives the life cared by a Jewish old woman Madame Rosa who takes care of children of prostitutes. The story unfolds as Madame Rosa becomes sicker and gradually aging. She didn’t want to be sent to the hospital to sustain life on medicine. As Momo helps Madame Rosa to avoid it, he tries to make sense of the world that seems incomprehensible.
The book is full of surprises. It tears your heart open softly, and leaves you helpless there, knowing that there is nothing you can do to change it in any way because it’s just the way life is. The story is written from Momo’s point of view. As you read, you follow the life of the little boy, walking around on his own. You are there with him, as he tells you, that he dresses an umbrella up in a coat, and gives it a name, Arthur. You are there as he goes to cafes and circuits, as he finds a puppy and loves it. You are there with him as someone asks to buy the puppy, and he sells it, and lost the money in a sewage.
Momo’s thoughts are painfully mature. The contrast between the chilliness of the facts of life observed from his point of view, with his youth and young age, makes your heart crumble. He is confused and quietly angry at life yet still manages to tell jokes to Madame Rosa about people who live in hospital as “vegetables”. “In America”, he said, they have a record for everything. Even for how long people live like that.
The pace of the story is slow and in a haze, with a sense of irrelevance when actually talking about things of great significance and heavy. Momo sometimes chat with an old man, Monsieur Hamil. He asks, “can people live without anyone to love?” Monsieur Hamil would say, “I like couscous a lot, little Victor, but not today.” Momo would remind him that his name is not Victor. And the old man would say, “Yes yes. That’s true. Well, even I loved someone when I was young. I loved a young woman, whose name was …” Then pause. Then the old man appeared a little surprised and lost, and said, “I don’t remember her name anymore…”
Then one day, as Madame Rosa is aging and dying, a Mr. Yoûssf Kadir appeared at the door steps, sick, close to dying, asking to see his son. He got some paper that clearly says the kid is Momo. The twist came when Madame Rosa said, yes, of course, and pointing to another boy, saying that this is your son. Mr. Kadir couldn’t accept it, and died there, on the spot.
It’s a story of love, though it’s love in a much broader definition than pure romantic love. The book itself ends with “il faut aimer (you have to love)”. The kind of love, is strangely illogical. Madame Rosa told Momo he is ten years old while he is actually fourteen. And as he asks her why, she responded shyly that “I don’t want you to grow up so fast”.
It felt quite a relieve to finish the book, which took me almost a year. From spending two hours per page, to reading in full chunks without stopping to consult the dictionary, that’s why I like learning languages. Because you could feel the progresses so easily and it’s under your control, unlike other things in life.