NOT TO BE MISSED
"Le Roman de Pauline", a novel by Calixthe BEYALA
Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 2009. (224p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
For almost twenty years, Calixthe Beyala has explored life in French banlieues, where employment is scarce, life tough, upward mobility out of reach and the meaning of life hard to fathom. Le Roman de Pauline proposes variations on the theme that prove once more the ability of the author to address important issues in a quite entertaining, yet thought-provoking manner.
Pauline is fourteen. She is sharp-witted, but noxious family life has poisoned her upbringing, disturbed her schooling and left her to fend for herself on the street. Life has become unbearable between an unlovable mother, a delinquent brother and a self-centred boyfriend who treats her like dirt. As for her father, he disappeared shortly after her birth, soon replaced by a string of men who never stayed with her mother for very long. The admonishments of the social worker appointed to support her have been of little help and, as the novel begins, Pauline is inescapably sliding toward a life of truancy and prostitution.
The urban quagmire she calls home nevertheless offers a number of positive features soothing the metaphysical emptiness of her life. Friendship is one of them. Pauline and her peers are wild and unruly, but they also long for social acceptance, friendship and love. Unfortunately, Pauline's association with her familiars brings little positive energy and her relationship with friends, like every aspects of her life, is plagued by verbal arguments, fights and disturbances. And this volatile situation is not helped by her friends' parents who are out of touch, weary and sometimes unequivocally criminal, as is her boyfriend's father who abuses her sexually.
The mother of her friend Lou is well educated. She encourages her daughter to study hard at school and follows local etiquette: at her table, chicken in peanut sauce is not eaten with one's fingers, but with knife and fork. She seems to illustrate the perfect enculturation in French society, but the posture of Lou's mother has not brought her success and happiness. "What's an African woman who went to university like ?" Pauline asks. And the answer she comes up with one that surely reflects Beyala's point of view is scathing: "She looks like one who has been discriminated against because of the colour of her skin and who ends up selling cheese in a supermarket; one who is unable to find an African husband because nobody wants to marry an intelligent woman full of ambitions".
Mina's mother is the antithesis of Lou's, but she fares no better in Pauline's eyes. She has followed assiduously the family rules imposed by her husband and does not blink an eye when she is told to take away her daughter's baby, born out of wedlock, in order to "save Mina's virginity and to marry her to a good Muslim husband". For Pauline, there are only dysfunctional families and lost souls on display, people who find it hard to look confidently toward the future. Abandoned to their own devices, their sole release mechanism has been violence towards themselves and others. So, is it possible to blame Pauline for her failed education and lack of opportunity? The answer is clearly "no".
Who, then, is responsible, Beyala asks. Her mother's lack of love, her unsavoury grandmother, her absentee father, French racism, the slave trade and colonisation? These and many other factors have certainly contributed to shape Pauline's destiny. But in the end, it is not what made her what she is that counts, but how she can manage and transcend this inheritance in order to move forward with confidence. For Beyala and her main characters personal achievements is the key. Freedom won't emerge from violent rallies pitched against the recalcitrance of nebulous authorities to change the status quo, even if these protests are somewhat useful in challenging France's official views of history, change will spring from individuals' determination and forceful takeover of positions of power.
The need to move beyond noisy protests and recriminations is not lost on Pauline and Beyala as evidenced in the following episode: Lou's hard work at school has become such a burden to the young girl whose dream is not to get good marks, but to find love and peer recognition that she decides to dodge schoolwork and rejoins Pauline and other classmates in a sleazy nightclub. Contrary to her expectation, she is far from welcomed: not because the others have no time for a swotting friend; on the contrary, because they don't want her to waste her chance of having a real impact on the local scene : " Your place is not here, Pauline said. / Where then ? At school ? I am fed up with school, Lou answered / No way! You are not going to become like us. What would become of us if you were to turn out like us ? another said. / Indeed, what are we to become if there are only hooligans in Pantin ? / We need Doctors to bring our children into the world. / Lawyers to defend us / Politicians to sway the State to our advantage. / Historians to manufacture our history/ Mathematicians to teach stuff to our kids / What's our future if you become like us ? / I understand, Lou grumbled. But I cannot become all that at the same time, and I also need to have a boyfriend who loves me". (pp.154-155)
Whereas Lou's road towards freedom is laid down by her semi-illiterate peers, paradoxically it will be a school-teacher who will offer Pauline the opportunity to move beyond the demons that possess her mind and obscure her horizon. Not surprisingly, this important female character of Beyala's novel emphasises self-reliance and the virtue of discipline. She has little time for whingeing students and their reliance on mitigating circumstances to justify poor behaviour and lack of achievement. As she tells Pauline: "You, the youth of the banlieues... you are convinced that everybody should yield to your wishes because society has been unjust with your parents; you believe that this gives you the right to violate rules and regulations and to irk everyone... but listen, Pauline, that doesn't work with me". (p.200) For Mathilde, the same rules should apply to everyone; cultural values are unrelated to the avatar of one's origin, complexion, sex or wealth. In her eyes, the "Trésors du Louvre" are not "beauty for the middle-class" as one of her students argued, but specimen of the Arts relevant to everyone everywhere, including the local graffiti aficionados who surround her at school.
Recent disturbances in France have shown that race relationship are far from improving. Living conditions in the banlieues remain as difficult as ever, yet more and more young women Like Pauline, Lou and their teacher Mathilde are breaking free from the feeling of hopelessness they inherited from past history and contemporary thought. It will be them and their determination, Beyala suggests, who will break the vicious cycle that tends to perpetuate inequalities. Sooner or later, French residents of all complexions and creeds will have to admit that "People do not belong to the colour of their skin but to the place where they live". [http://aflit.arts.uwa.edu.au/AMINAbeyala09.html].
This all important problematic is well served by Beyala's style. She has found the perfect characters, a befitting plot and the right tone to challenge and entertain readers of various mind-sets. Many unpalatable truths are easier to accept when they are told tongue in the cheek by an author gifted with a sharp pen and a quick wit. Beyala's Roman de Pauline is undeniably a good read and one that leaves the reader with a tear in their eyes and the belief that tomorrow will be nothing like today, only better.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities