NOT TO BE MISSED
"Samba pour la France", a novel by Delphine COULIN
Paris: Seuil, 2011. (310p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
"Illegal immigrants" are often making the news but one will learn very little from the oft-superficial evocations of their plight in the press. The every-day life of individuals chased by police, exploited by unscrupulous employers, imprisoned behind barbed wire, and eventually sent back "home" to an uncertain future, remains shrouded in secrecy. Samba pour la France [Samba for France] by French author Delphine Coulin is thus a shattering novel that reveals, in detail, the life of a young Senegalese man who entered France illegally and, like millions of others around the world, bears the brunt of political expediency, exploitation and xenophobic fears.
Upon turning the last page of this novel, readers will be stunned by the tale of Samba's life, complete with his attempts to put in order his residency card, constant preoccupation with avoiding police, search for work, change of identity and attempts to send money to his mother in Senegal. Life on the run is not a sinecure, especially when the main protagonist has to find 400 euros a month to rent a dilapidated room underground, when even the most menial jobs are not available to him because he is not in possession of an hallowed carte de séjour and, when the President of the country, keen to throw aliens out in order to cultivated a tough-on-crime image, has ordered his 'troops' to pick up the pace and to fill their "expulsion' quota" . Faced with the impossible task of surviving by legal means, Samba has no other choice but to resort to illicit means of survival. That begins with using other's identity papers in order to secure casual employment, whenever he can.
Paradoxically though, it is not breaking the law that first lands Samba in trouble, but a very legitimate visit to the Immigration Head Office to make an enquiry about forms lodged a few months earlier in order to renew his old temporary resident card. Unfortunately for him, he is unaware that his application was rejected a month earlier and that an "OQTF" (Obligation to quit France within 30 days) was issued. So, it is between two policemen that he leaves the building he had just entered and he is sent straight to a detention centre pending his deportation. It is only thanks to the effort of a couple of volunteers, working for a small organisation fighting against arbitrary deportation, that he manages to extricate himself from the clutches of officialdom and escape immediate expulsion, ten years after arriving in Paris.
If anything, his temporary incarceration in a detention centre for "illegal" immigrants about to be expelled tells him that the misery experienced outside these walls is nothing compared to the distress and tragedies that dominate life inside the centre; a cauldron in which the unfortunate victims of merciless manhunts, administrative tyranny and arbitrary expulsions are dealt the final blow. In the gallery of horrors on display, self-mutilation and daily suicide attempts are common occurrences that put the staff in a permanent state of alert: "Other men were rushing down the stairs. Samba saw two cops holding the Turkish guy while a third one was attempting to recover the razor blade before he could swallow it. Minutes before, when they came to pick him up, he swallowed the blade, in front of them. One of the cops put his fingers in the mouth that was spitting blood and shouted: "Keep his mouth open, he is biting my hand!". Samba did not know if the blood that flowed was that of the Turk or that of the cop, since one was shouting as loudly as the other. Everyone was joining in the action. The Turk was still resisting... A cop closed the door ... that opened again moment later. The man strapped and covered in blood was taken away by the cops, his feet dragging on the floor" (p.56).
Cutting your veins, attempting to hang yourself, or sewing your lips with electrical wire cannot change the determination of the officers in charge of putting people on the plane that would remove them from French soil. To add insult to injury, the destination of the flight was not necessarily congruent with the person's real ties and sense of belonging: "it was the person's passport that was the determinant, not their language or their life story" (p.114). So the Persian-speaking youth, born in Iran to Afghan parents and totally disconnected from the country of his ancestors is sent back to Afghanistan "because his passport says he is Afghani" (p.113). The fact that he considers himself an Iranian, even though Iran refused him an Iranian passport, does not make any difference . In order to boost numbers and to meet expulsion quotas, human welfare is forgotten, shared decency abandoned and application of the law reduced to a parody of justice that confounds this stream of people, who neither understand why they are treated like criminals, nor the basis of their expulsion.
And volunteers attempting to help the victims to draft desperate pleas feel the pain of an uphill battle against stubborn officials. "It is hard", the law student, who managed to get Samba released from detention, said to him when they met again: "Yesterday we spent the day in court and we suffered nothing but dismissals. The only person who won her appeal was a ninety-three year old woman from Bosnia. From the time of the war in the former Yugoslavia, she had lived in France with all her family and did not know anyone in her homeland anymore. And yet, they wanted to send her back, all alone. Moreover, I have the gut feeling that we would not even have won this case had she not been suffering from cancer. ... Five other people were also with us and none of them understood the decision taken by the Judge. They did not understand what was said about them. Not a word.... And it befell us telling them that they were under order to leave French soil as their appeal had not been upheld... Shitty day" (pp.176-177). Like the Nigerian sent back home with his plastic bucket, mop and detergents the only belongings he was carrying when he was arrested five new victims were refused the benefit of basic human rights and decency.
France's relentless hounding of "illegal" immigrants is, unfortunately, not an aberration, an idiosyncratic practice contrary to the ideals of modern governance; and the attitude of a host of other countries towards people fleeing their homelands, for a variety of reasons, is no better. Conditions in Spain, Greece, Morocco and Algeria are also depicted graphically in the novel and they all show the misery, violence, deprivation and death that many "illegal" emigrants are confronted with before reaching France. That is the case of Samba who cheated death many times during his long journey to Paris. It began in the early stages of his escape when the unemployed fisherman turned smuggler, who took him aboard, then attempted to throw his passengers overboard as police were approaching his boat:
"Samba could not swim and, shouting and screaming, he told him that he would not jump in the freezing cold water. For the first time in his life, he felt he could have died." (p.38). But attempting to cross the desert through Mali, Algeria and Morocco was no safer: "Every check-point was an occasion to be robbed, either by police or the military, against whom it was impossible to resist without being abused and beaten up. The buckle of an Algerian soldier's belt had left forever its mark on the arch of his eyebrows. And countless verifications of the travellers' documents were stripped from them; everything they owned: their savings, their goods and even their shoes, sometimes" (p.41).
Wandering in the desert with no food and little water before attempting repeatedly to cross the fence separating Morocco from Spain was also taking a heavy toll... many did not make it: like "the little three year old boy, dying on the sand with his mother who could go no further" (p. 43). "A fourth attempt came about. They tried out a different strategy by going through, seventy people together. After cutting a large opening in the mesh they all went through. There were a number of women and children; but as they were running towards Spain, the police began to shoot..." (p.42).
In lifting the veil of secrecy that surrounds the inadequate response to the dramatic pleas for help of people in dire need of assistance, Samba pour la France tells a tale of injustice and cruelty hiding behind a criminal veil of administrative secrecy. But it also tells the resilience of people fighting for their lives. Like Samba, they saw their dreams shattered early in life, but like him they keep their hopes alive and friendship provides an antidote to official abuse. If Samba's life is littered with obstacles, it is also one of heartfelt relationships forged in his struggle for survival. For example, the young lad he meets during his third attempt to cross the Spanish border: "... he jumped over the fence and found himself in Spain. But just as he landed on his feet, he was arrested by the Guardia Civil. With seven others, he was taken back to Morocco. This third attempt was no doubt the hardest, but he won a new friend on this occasion: a Beninese, Joseph, a big man with a cheerful face who was cracking jokes and with whom the trek seemed to pass quicker." (p.41).
Joseph ends up being killed by prison guards at his ninth attempt, but for a year his comradeship is what helps Samba to stay alive. So too Samba's close relationship with his Uncle Lamouna who fled his village after a mob of Tuaregs decapitated his father; his friendly association with a work-mate Wilson, a Colombian "illegal" who came to Paris to make his fortune and was cleaning windows with him; his love for Gracieuse who fled the Congo after rebels massacred the inhabitants of her village, shot her mother and took away her young brother; his affection for the elderly French anarchist with whom he goes scavenging for food; and his closeness to two young women who helped him fight his OQTF. All these genuine relationships have no bearing on Samba's ultimate fate at the hands of officialdom, but they do give him a reason to live.
This novel bears witness to one of the most dramatic failings of our time and it makes an important contribution to the true nature of so-called "illegal" immigration. The fate of the innocent victims of destructive economic, military and political pursuits is the driving force behind the narration. That's already a good reason to recommend this book, but it is not the only one. Samba pour la France is also a good read based on a well designed plot, a nice story line and a discerning cast of characters. Not only is it informative, but also thought-provoking and spellbinding. As Jean-Christophe Ruffin said in awarding the 2011 Landerneau Prize to Delphine Coulin: "In an impeccable writing style, Delphine Coulin managed to draw from her own experience and daily life and to initiate a profound social reflection dealing with the themes of integration and international migrations" . Definitely a book that will strike a chord with many readers, as Samba's life is no different from that of millions of "illegal" immigrants the world over.
1. France races to oust illegal immigrants http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-09-22-1772042503_x.htm [Sighted 20 August 2011].
2. Many other countries apply similar barriers to bona fide requests for citizenship. In 2004, for example, Swiss voters rejected a simplified naturalisation procedure for second and third-generation foreigners. http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/Home/Archive/Tough_naturalisation_laws_criticised.html?cid=5637192 [Sighted 20 August 2011].
3. L'express.fr. "Delphine Coulin reçoit le Prix Landerneau 2011". 10 février 2011. http://www.lexpress.fr/culture/livre/delphine-coulin-recoit-le-prix-landerneau-2011_961127.html [Sighted 20 August 2011].
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities