Ahlème’s mother was the one who chose her name. It means “dream” in Arabic but these days that choice seems sadly ironic at best. Ahlème is an Algerian immigrant, living in the projects outside Paris. Her Paris, however, is far from the city of light.
Ahlème lives instead in a city of “sad silhouettes, all looking for a little color,” uncomfortable beings, lost among “strange architecture” and, lately, defined by burning cars and angry battles with police.
Faiza Guène, the daughter of Algerian immigrants, knows only too well about existence on the margins of French life. She, too, grew up in projects outside Paris and then in 2004 – at the age of 22 – stepped onto a global stage with the publication of her first novel “Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow.”
Narrated in the wry, edgy voice of Doria, a teenager from an Algerian immigrant family, “Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow” quickly became an international bestseller. Guène’s second novel, Some Dream for Fools, translated from French by Jenna Johnson, follows on the heels of that success.
Ahlème, the protagonist of “Some Dream for Fools,” could be Doria’s older cousin. At 22, she’s been living in France for a decade now but all she has to show for it is a marked sense of disorientation. The French are very precise, she notes, not like Africans, who mark time in generous minutes of more than 60 seconds. But as she tries to navigate the acronyms of the French social services (“We only have ten minutes left at the most to contact the SREP, because it won’t help at all to go through the AGPA.... We can try FAJ,” explains a social worker trying to help her find a job), Ahlème has difficulty staving off despair. (“Where do I find the box marked ‘My life is a complete failure?’ ” she wonders, as she sifts through official forms. “At least with that I could just immediately check yes, and we wouldn’t have to talk about anything else.”)
Like Doria, Ahlème’s worries are also tied to her family situation. It was her mother’s death during a massacre in Algeria that propelled the family to France. Her father (whom she affectionately calls The Boss) found work in construction, but he has since become disabled on the job, pushing her into the awkward role of head of family.
Most worrisome to her, however, is her 15-year-old brother Foued. Lately, he’s been running with a tough crowd. He now wears a diamond in his ear and begs for a blond rinse for his hair. He has become a “G” – in other words, “a fine thing, a tight guy,” and the ethnic girls (or djoufs) make eyes at him when he walks by. He wants money for “clothes and creams” and Ahlème worries about where he will be tempted to find that cash.
She wonders if taking him home to their bled (village) in Algeria will save him – even though she knows that nothing waits for them there. When she receives letters from the relatives back home, they seem more like Christmas shopping lists than expressions of affection. Ahlème and her family are now seen as conduits for bundles of French consumer goods – even though they themselves feel only one step out of the slums.
Ahlème and Doria both inhabit an uncomfortable zone where two cultures overlap and yet somehow neither offers comfortable berth to those caught in-between. It may seem a nether world to those of us who don’t inhabit it but it is reality for so many of the world’s citizens today – making Guène’s novels all the more necessary. With a keen eye for detail and a sharp narrative tone, she gives voice to a hurt too long unrecognized.
“Some Dream for Fools,” unfortunately, does not have the full charm of “Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow.” Perhaps because of her youth, Doria makes a more appealing and humorous narrator than Ahlème. Also, the narrative arc of “Some Dream for Fools” satisfies less.
And yet, both these novels are books that very successfully take us into another world – a world that no nation today can afford to ignore. “I always recognize them,” says Ahlème of her fellow immigrants. “They have something in their eyes that isn’t the same as everybody else, like they want to be invisible, or be somewhere else.” But the simple truth, she notes, remains unchanged: “[T]hey’re here.”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.