Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Banquet of Lies by Amin Zaoui

Guest review by Jay Benedict.

As promised in his recent interview (which is, incidentally, one of the most popular pieces Vulpes has ever run …) Jay Benedict returns for the first of what we hope will be many guest reviews for us.

Banquet of Lies is Marion Boyars’ first bilingual publication in years and, back in the summer, Kit Maude entertained us with a lively account of its birth pangs.

Jay tells us it isn’t a book for the faint hearted. I’m telling you this isn’t a review for the faint-hearted, either (and keep your eyes open for one of the most gloriously tasteless puns in the entire history of book reviewing …).

—o—

“The best lies tell the truth” so the author keeps reminding us at every turn of the page.  Thus Banquet of Lies becomes the perfect title for Amin Zaoui’s book.  It’s a streams-of-consciousness/semi-autobiographical/confessional tale – shades of Henry Miller with some Gustave Flaubert thrown in for good measure.

Fact and fiction are conveniently blurred.  The narrative jumps forward and back and it’s all done deliberately so you never know truly where you are.  Zaoui leads you down one path only to flip you around at every other page.  So characters’ names become mixed up along with time and locations too.  “Was I  12  or 14 at the time?  Was her name Souha or Douja/Karina or Cahina?” Under the premise that a liar is a kind of genius, somewhere between a madman and prophet, and that all women love to listen to lies we enter deeper into his world of semi-fact  and  religious depravity.

The first thing I should warn you about is that this book is not for the politically correct or the faint-hearted or those with Anglo-Saxon attitudes.  It breaks down pretty much every social convention and taboo that we in the West have been raised to believe in, and turns them on their heads. Necrophilia turns out not to be dead boring after all, but more an act of an everlasting prayer to the creator. Devouring women, withered by age and time, on creaky beds and straw mattresses in dank stables reeking of animals is the order of the day; in fact the whole process brings you closer to God.  You begin to see?

To back up a little here, we need to get into the author’s family history.  You couldn’t make this stuff up! The cast of characters comes straight out of  Soap – that cult classic US TV series from the 80′s (for those of you old enough to remember).  At the beginning of every episode, the voice over would conclude, “Confused?  You will be after this week’s episode of Soap!

Our hero, Koussaila, aka Nems (“weasel” to his friends), is having his first sexual encounter with his mother’s twin sister, Louloua, on the same day as the 1965 Algerian coup d’état.  We’re supposed to believe his grandfather, a notorious holy man and bi-sexual, gets hacked to bits and eaten by his butchers, along with his lover.  So much for tolerance and Gay-Lib.  At the same time he’s devoting his nights to his grandmother.  This is the woman who was so blind and diabetic on her daughter’s wedding night she brought Safir aka Gharib aka Salouk aka Nems’ father the wrong daughter.  Louloua was the one he’d really wanted to marry, but his contract had been made with Hadile, her twin sister.  Louloua, in time, starts sleeping with Nems as a form of distant revenge whilst organizing for her twin to take up with Safir’s brother, Houssine, aka Ho Chi Min.  Meanwhile, Nems’ father sees the light and scarpers for a life of travel and horses.  Not 40 days later, Ho Chi Min announces Safir’s death; which everyone believes until, years later, the old traveller returns, only to be ignored by everyone, in spite of which he goes to live on the village square for the next 3 years.  What a plot!  It explains perfectly the Beatles lyric to Rocky Raccoon, “Her name was Magill, and she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy!”

We discover early on that Koussaila comes from an ancient Sharif Family and that he’s cursed by being left-handed.  Only pigs and Roumis eat with their left hand.  His mother promptly ties his left hand behind his back; only to discover him masturbating with his right.  She has a fit and thrashes him to within an inch of his life, at which point he falls hopelessly in love with her.  As a consequence, he decides to chop off the offending hand with the help of a sheep knife they use to slit the throat of the sacrificial lamb.  A recurring theme within the book is that he keeps getting found out!  His Mother discovers his plan and cuts him loose, thereby freeing him to become an ambidextrous masturbator throughout the book.  From that moment on, we find our hero wanking at every keyhole, in every field, from behind every pew in church, watching his father making it with his aunt.  Portnoy’s complaint?  It’s not a condition he’s able to treat unfortunately – it’s so exaggerated it becomes both funny and ludicrous at one and the same time.  And he writes with such obvious self-loathing and black humour, you almost feel sorry for him.  We soon learn that he’s hung like a donkey and of a somewhat precocious sexual nature, dropping his trousers at every turn of the page, whether it be with a Catholic nun, teacher’s wife or the cleaning lady who morphs into the doctor or Jewish neighbour.  He’s praying to Allah throughout, as if his antics formed part of some act of worship.  At the height of sexual passion, a number of verses from the Q’ran are recited; always asking for guidance and mercy.  The more passionate and frenzied his lovemaking, the more guidance from Allah he needs.

He’s a self-confessed queer fish.  A snitch and liar, who tells on his fellow classmates.  He hates summer, doesn’t like sunshine and prefers dogs to doctors.  Well, that bit isn’t difficult!  He loves older women; can’t understand why.   Somehow can’t get aroused by his younger cousin with her thoughts of honour and disgrace and virginity.  He can’t bear the smell of blood, so circumcision and menstruation abhor him.  He loves the abandon of the folds and furrows of the flesh; he becomes a sexual cannibal, devouring women in all their glory.  When he gets sent to boarding school, he hangs out with the whores in the local bordello, running favours for them, drinking wine with them, rolling their joints of hashish and, of course, sleeping with them.  At the same time he’s this closet academic with a love of musty corridors, reading French books and teaching himself Spanish by staying up all days and hours of the night reading dictionaries under his bedclothes with the aid of an old torch.  A favourite pastime is hanging out at the local cemetery, dechiphering Hebrew tombstones for fun.

I was somewhat surprised by Frank Wynne’s use of the French in his translation. Why keep zizi and conin in French when there are so many descriptive imaginative English counterparts for the  male and female anatomy?  Political correctness I suspect.  He uses the F-word a lot, when in fact it doesn’t exist in French and keeps words like beignets and Prie-Dieux, and doesn’t appear able to find English equivalents for them.  I’d love to know why he did that.  I eat beignets in France, churros in Spain and doughnuts in England.  But these are small matters. I enjoyed his translation in the main and found it entered into the spirit of the matter, although I felt there were times when he could have gone further still with the sheer helplessness, self-deprecation and black humour of it all!

As for Zaoui’s book; whether in its original French or the English  translation; it’s a wildly imaginative read and I’d like to read more of his books to make sure he’s not just a one-trick pony.  I can relate a lot to his story,  with tales of surrogate father-figures and being sent away to boarding school,  along with the refuges he finds as a result.  As a boy in Paris, I used to play in the crypt of the church opposite our apartment – for fun!  Being alone is something I understand.  The profanity and incest will upset some people, but my  ex-wife came from Ceylon.  I know that, on that island, first cousins were in the habit of marrying one another all the time, producing geniuses for offspring as well as idiots, so I don’t sit in judgement.

A sensational and shocking read in the true sense of the  word,  I found getting to grips with Nems and his world a fascinating journey, but it’s not a book I could recommend to everyone.

Marion Boyars.  2008.  Amin Zaoui and Frank Wynne.  ISBN 978-0-7145-3160-1.  240pp.

22 comments on “Banquet of Lies by Amin Zaoui

  1. Violet
    September 24, 2008

    Phew!!!
    What a story. I was almost exhausted after reading the review itself. The story is very wierd, something I have never read before. But thats the precise reason why I would like to read it. A fantastic review.

  2. Lisa
    September 24, 2008

    Thank you for this guest review of what sounds like a colourful and highly original book. Like the commenter above, my head was spinning after reading the review but who could resist a novel like this? Self-confessed queer fish make the best kind of protagonists in my opinion (but then I would say that ;) )

    Semi-autobiographical novels can be wonderful, so I’m intrigued about that element. The only worry I have is that with all flipping around and mixing of character names and locations, I can see myself becoming a little confused. Still, seems like this one is worth the effort.

  3. Moira
    September 24, 2008

    Well, THAT was a review like none other. It makes ‘Banquet’ sound well-nigh irresistible. Should this worry me?

  4. aims
    September 24, 2008

    Your review does make it sound irresistible. Or – perhaps there are those of us out here who are drawn to such a book because of our own little quirks? Think I would like to read it – thanks!

  5. HJWeiss
    September 25, 2008

    I’m amazed no-one is commenting on this review. Are they all scared or speechless or what? It’s fabulous. Kit Maude’s right – he called it a hurricane and that’s exactly what it is. Fantastic stuff. I’m off to check out this book.

    Great site, by the way. Came here from Marion Boyars, but I’m going to enjoy looking around.

  6. Moira
    September 25, 2008

    Thank you for your enthusiasm, HJWeiss. I hope you enjoy the site. I see you’ve been about a bit already. :mrgreen:

    I think they’re probably just shy. Or possibly shell-shocked.

  7. Leena
    September 25, 2008

    How about shy and shell-shocked?

    This sounds like a book that would leave the timid readers (i.e., me) traumatised… but the review itself was a great read. I hope you’ll write more for VL in the future!

  8. Krail
    September 26, 2008

    I HAVE to delurk for this! The reviews on this siteare never less than good but this one is a stunner. I don’t wonder no-one knows what to say. Wow! Definitely not a book for everyone but I might just have a go. Thank you very much Mr B. I hope this is the first of very many.

  9. julian moseley
    September 26, 2008

    Sounds like filth and depravity. Does it have any literary merits? Can the author spell for example? Just the facts, Ma’am. Just the facts.

    Meanwhile anyone in search of random time-shifting should get back to The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner. Mind you his considerable skill as an author was driven by alcohol. That’s as depraved as he got. – JM

  10. Moira
    September 27, 2008

    Ah well, JM … filth and depravity are almost entirely in the eye – or in this case the mind – of the observer.

    Not sure what the connection between literary merit and spelling is, though. If you’d like a list of well-known authors who couldn’t spel for toffi, I’ll happily supply it.

  11. Jackie
    September 27, 2008

    This one is much too weird for me. And I find Mr. Benedict’s statement “I can relate a lot to his story” a bit worrisome. lol
    That must be a Barbie doll on the cover, no actual woman could possibly be proportioned in such an unrealistic manner.

  12. Moira
    September 27, 2008

    Trust the artist to spot the proportions. :mrgreen:

    I suspect it’s a mannequin, Jacks …

  13. Malcolm
    September 29, 2008

    Delurker here. Not sure about this at all. Call me a stick in the mud but it does sound a bit gratuitously OTT to me. Not that its not a great review. It is. Its probably better than the book deserves frankly. But at the risk of making myself look really dumb, could someone PLEASE tell me what the pun is? I’ve read it three times and can’t see it.

  14. Moira
    September 29, 2008

    Should we be reading something into the fact that this review has flushed out the lurkers? :grin:

    Welcome, Malcolm … and congratulations on being the only person to have the courage to admit publicly that the pun has eluded them. It plainly speaks to your purity of mind, because I’m afraid I got it on the first pass and was incoherent for several minutes.

    Consider for a moment, if you will, the nature of necrophilia – then read the third paragraph again.

  15. Malcolm
    September 30, 2008

    Oh. Thank you. I think.

  16. PadiF
    October 1, 2008

    I arrived here from the Canongate site. They’re dead right. Amazing place. I’ve been browsing for a while now and I’m blown away by how diverse it is. I don’t think I know a single other site which such a catholic spread. Everything from chicklit to non fiction to THIS. Stunning stuff.

  17. Pingback: links to other sites | John Baker's Blog

  18. Cleaning Lady
    December 6, 2008

    Nice and usefull post, thanks, this is one for my bookmarks!

  19. Pingback: Staying sane(ish) inside insanity - Jay Benedict « Vulpes Libris

  20. Carol-Lynne Wilson
    June 25, 2009

    Hi. Just wondered if you’re the Jay from Rumson/Fairhaven High School??
    Ditto for previous comment. Stunning stuff. CL

  21. Moira
    June 25, 2009

    Hello Carol-Lynne. Thank you for calling by … and for the compliment!

    Jay is very busy rehearsing at the moment, but I know that he never attended Rumson/Fairhaven. He was born and raised in southern California.

  22. Pingback: Banquet of Lies by Amin Zaoui and Frank Wynne « Vulpes Libris

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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