NOT TO BE MISSED
"L'Afro-Parisienne et la suite arithmétique du Saigneur de Paris", a "whodunit" by Brigitte TSOBGNY
Paris: Odin Editions, 2013. (380p.).
Ce compte rendu en français
As suggested by its title, Brigitte Tsobgny's novel "The Afro-Parisian and the arithmetical sequence of serial killer in Paris" belongs to crime fiction, but it is also a penetrating analysis of France's woes and inability to rein in people's exploitation, racism, unemployment and graduates' lack of opportunities at the beginning of the twentyfirst century. The story is told from the point of view of a quadragenarian African woman who has been "relegated to the purgatory of the also-rans" (p.11) due to her origins and gender.
Back in France after her PhD in biophysics and post-doctoral research in Canada, Cameroon born and French national, Biloa has been unable to secure a job in keeping with her academic excellence and professional expertise. In desperation, she had to accept a very poorly paid position as a maths teacher in a distant College. When, after ten tough years, she eventually finds a slightly better paid teaching job in Paris, she feels her luck is turning. The small studio she can afford in the 19th arrondissement and the promise of a permanent position after her probationary year in her new school are a small, yet significant boost to her confidence.
As she arrives in her new flat, elated and brimming with new ideas, a headline of the local rag catches her attention: a serial killer is on the loose in the neighbourhood and women are urged to be vigilant. This news somewhat dampers her enthusiasm while it also takes over her imagination as the killer, the paper says, seems fascinated by the number seven. This seeming interest in numbers could not but intrigue a maths' teacher, and her interest in the case is reinforced as she befriends a neighbour who soon becomes her lover and, teasingly, challenges her to find the key to the enigma. As the serial-killer defies the police and adds new names to the list of victims, Biola slowly puts together the various clues mentioned by the press before realising, to her horror, half-way through the novel, that her beloved neighbour fits perfectly the profile of the killer. Readers are on tenterhooks and a cunning comment by the narrator suggesting that evidence is still missing to convict the obvious culprit (p.210) does nothing but increase further the tension that is building, page after page. It will not be until the very end of the novel that readers will know for certain if Biloa has, or hasn't, set the cat amongst the pigeons.
Adding to the fact that this novel is a thriller-buffs' pleaser, the author's heartfelt depiction of an ailing society firmly grounded in contemporary France, is absorbing. Beyond the rather unassuming images of the people inhabiting the pages of the novel, readers discover a country dominated by discrimination, violence, lack of solidarity, frustrated hopes and financial hardship. The majority if not all the characters are eventually crushed by the system, but they keep fighting against the odds as best they can. Biloa's uphill battle against discrimination eloquently expresses this state of affairs. She has been relegated to "a ghetto of over-qualified and under-employed Blacks and Arabs" (p.12) by the backward attitudes prevailing around her, and one can only share her dismay at both, the open and covert disparaging of her claim to equality in terms of employment, professional judgment, recognition and freedom of speech. Defined by her gender and origins rather than her competence and personality, she remains the prisoner of die-hard stereotypes: some wrongly assume that she is mainly interested in African things, "tontines", family lore and the history of the ruthless forebears from whom she inherited her name. Others, her students and colleagues alike, openly question her accent, teaching methods, attitude toward the students and even imaginary gaps in her knowledge of mathematics. Furthermore, no-one seems to admit that black or white, French citizens don't have to have a "good reason" to stay in France, economic or otherwise, in order to do so. Biloa, like the bulk of her French compatriots, is there by default, one may say. It is the place where she feels at home and, she adds: "I do not feel more "foreigner" than the people who look at me askance"(p.150).
Like her colleague Rachid, the 'homeless' Alex-the-chemist, who ends up losing his mind, and countless others, she is the victim of a deep-seated suspicion of people who look different. And this parochialism sustains racism in its many forms, from condescention to verbal aggression and open warfare. Yet, what also irks Biloais the about-face of some of her black friends, keen to refute society's racism as soon as they have found employment, or married a French national. French racism may well be directed in the first instance at Blacks and Arabs, but it is not the preserve of people of a given extraction. So too is the belief in the sanctity of individuals' origin and their de facto belonging to an ancestral community that overrides all other allegiances.
In this respect Biloa is somewhat different from her Chadian best-friend Françoise, who mentions the huge number of family members and Cameroonian people Biloa could call upon when she feels lonely; but the latter is not interested in a solidarity based on communautarism. Rather, she is of the belief that one should have the freedom to chose one's friends and social network irrespective of their ascendance and colour.
Françoise's life-story is both enlightening and heartbreaking. Unlike Biloa who was born to well-educated parents and promises of a bright future at least in her parents' mind from the day she was born, Françoise was married to a man "who lived there, with the Whites" (p.21) and her dreams of a better life came crashing as soon as she landed in France. She had to work as a cleaning lady and to provide for all the household expenses, including the studies of her husband,who eventually abandoned her when he graduated as a nurse "almost a doctor", he tells her managed to seduce another women "as white as her working gown" (p.21) and left. The man who enters her life after her husband's desertion is no better than her former companion as he is always broke and endlessly chasing fortune through worthless stratagems. Things turn for the worse when she is sacked from her work, embezzled by her partner and eventually saved from complete destitution, at least for a time, by a Chadian friend.
As a last resort, ethnic solidarity seems able to save her from complete despair and abandonment, but the narratorr is quick to show that one does not need to scratch deep below the surface to see the limit of people's readiness to help fellow countrymen. Françoise's stay at her friend's place soon becomes a nightmare, not so much because three adults and four children are crammed into two small rooms in a Parisian suburb, but rather because the head of the family is a self-centred and stingy patriarch who rules his family with an iron fist, calling upon God's wisdom to justify his dictates and making Françoise's life a misery. Neither patriarchal domination nor condescending paternalism serve the interests of 'Other'. Genuine concern in people's welfare has to be borne of a sincere interest in their wellbeing, the author suggests. So too is one's search for friendship and, ultimately, love.
Like the family, school should be one of the prime sites of socialisation, allowing one to reach different 'others' through friendly and meaningful intercourse; but the bleak and dysfunctional educational milieu confronting Biloa, not only at university but also in the schools and colleges where she works as a teacher, depicts an institution that has lost touch with its mission. It is dominated by administrative red tape, violence, verbal abuse and ignorance. Bullying is rife, discrimination rampant and the threatening of teachers by unruly students goes unpunished. School hierarchies remain oblivious to their duty of care and empathy does not belong in the institution's vocabulary. Both students and teachers are subjected to the law of the jungle that always mimics the tyranny of narrow-mindedness and prejudice.
The press is another institution that leads the narrator to a scornful debunking. Coerced by the demands of their financial masters, many journalists of all persuasions spend more time entertaining their readers with topics that would sell rather than attempting to address the real issues confronting the Nation. The manner in which they pounce on the successive murders reported by the police and their eagerness to splash it on their front-page do not aim at raising public awareness of an important issue, but rather to sell more copies of the paper by playing on the fear of the readers and their gullibility. The world of politics is not spared either as, whatever the consequences of their inflammatory rhetoric, there are always politicians ready to play the "security" card in order to gain advantage over their political rivals.
The attention given by the author to the background of her thriller and the psychology of the characters does not distract readers from the tantalising plot of L'Afro-Parisienne et la suite arithmétique du Saigneur de Paris; it just adds to the pleasure of reading and while the overall ambiance of the novel is quite bleak, one has many occasions to smile when the author-cum-maths teacher winks at like-minded readers in the most amusing way: for example when young Arnaud calls his dog Gabi "Cetaindeneuf". Highly recommended.
1. "Cetaindeneuf", that is "7-1-2-9" as a playful little Parisian would say it... replacing letters with their corresponding place in the alphabet, G being the seventh letters, A the first, etc.
The University of Western Australia/School of Humanities