Think you don’t have time for books? The Short Read is a new Pi Arts & Culture column highlighting ‘novellas’ and ‘nonellas’: pocket-sized great works of fiction and non-fiction. In this first article, Olivia Ward-Jackson discusses The Life Before Us by Romain Gary (182 pages).
The Life Before Us tells the story of Momo, a ten-year-old Yiddish-speaking Muslim child (who later ages four years overnight!) and his devotion to Madame Rosa, his 220lb Jewish surrogate mother. Madame Rosa had been a beautiful ‘lady of the night’ herself before being sent to Auschwitz, an ordeal which she survived, but which traumatised her until her final days, when a picture of Hitler was the only thing that could frighten her out of a coma.
Madame Rosa runs an illegal boarding house in Paris for the children of prostitutes whose maternity rights have been confiscated by the French government – ‘a bunch of kids who weren’t necessary and hadn’t managed to get abortioned in time.’ Here, Momo grows up in the French gutter, surrounded by an ensemble of golden-hearted Parisian outcasts, including witch doctors, pimps, an old man with a passion for Victor Hugo, and the loving Madame Lola – a Senegalese transvestite – who couldn’t adopt her own child because ‘transvestites are too different and that’s something that society never forgives.’
When Madame Rosa becomes too old and fat to climb the stairs to their seventh-floor apartment, young Momo sees it as his duty to look after her. Again and again, he reminds the reader that ‘she’s all I have in this world’ and deplores the injustice of a society that denies a poor, old prostitute an elevator. Momo supports Madame Rosa until the bitter end, taking it upon himself to ensure she dies respectably and in peace – instead of receiving the ‘world’s champion vegetable prize’, awarded by rich countries with good medical care and no social conscience.
The Life Before Us is narrated by Momo himself and so offers a child’s acute perspective on the sorrows of old age and social injustice. Momo bluntly explains: ‘you’ve got to decide which kind of disregard you prefer and people always pick the biggest and the most expensive, like the Nazis, who cost millions, or Vietnam […] if the army spent its time taking care of old people, it wouldn’t be the French army anymore.’ Nevertheless, for all Momo’s attempts at being philosophical, the reader still feels the anger and pain of a young boy who can recognise inequality, but cannot fathom how or why it exists.
Momo charmingly re-evaluates societal norms – he sees the ugly as beautiful, the undesirable as loveable, and the crooked as justified. Momo would say, ‘trust my long experience’, which has helped him understand the social contexts of these Parisian untouchables. On the subject of old age, Momo claims, ‘old people may not be what they used to be but they’re worth as much as anybody else’, and wittily argues that ‘it’s not right to say mean things about a woman who’s old and sick […] you can’t judge everything by the same standards, like turtles and hippopotamuses.’
The Life Before Us caused quite a stir when it was published in 1975. It was written by Romain Gary, who was already a successful novelist, under the secret pseudonym Émile Ajar. In a grandiose act of artifice, the manuscript was sent not from Paris but from Rio de Janeiro and Gary’s cousin took on the role of Ajar, answering phone calls and doing interviews.
The hoax escalated when The Life Before Us won the prestigious Prix Goncourt, thus breaching the competition’s rules as Gary had already won the prize before in 1956 for The Roots of Heaven. From then on, Gary’s playful artistic experiment turned nasty as he was hounded by the literary orthodoxy whom he had deceived.
Only after his suicide did Gary own up to his alter-ego, leaving behind The Life and Death of Émile Ajar to be published posthumously. In this confession he wrote, ‘I was tired of being nothing but myself’, and revealed, ‘the truth is that I was profoundly affected by the oldest protean temptation of man: that of multiplicity.’ The Life Before Us is the rich product of one man’s attempt at artistic duality.
Image: Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa in Moshé Mizrahi’s 1977 film adaptation