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.
As part of our Shocking and Banned Book week, we’re taking the opportunity to re-run Jay Benedict’s review of Amin Zaoui’s ‘Banquet of Lies’, originally published in September 2008 – a review that caused almost as much controversy as the book itself.
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 …).
“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. Bilingual edition. ISBN 978-0-7145-3160-1. 240pp.