Modern Identities - the Intersection between Race, Faith and Gender
An analysis of Abdellah Taïa’s la vie lente, specifically considering marginalised lives at the intersection of race, faith and gender
La vie lente recounts the isolation and crisis of identity experienced by Mounir, a young Moroccan gay man, mistrusted by French society in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. Detached from Islam for his sexuality, but rejected by France for the colour of his skin, the protagonist struggles to assert his own character. Instead, he descends into a state of amnesia, where memories fade and life is blurred. Through presenting this lived experience alongside the gender struggles faced by those in his surroundings, and through demonstrating cycles of self-denial, Abdellah Taïa reveals what lies at the intersection of those excluded on account of their race, faith and gender - a ‘vie lente. Interminable, qui ne signifie plus rien,’ (a slow, interminable life, deprived of all meaning).
The silence of solitude is at the heart of Abdellah Taïa’s La vie lente, underscoring the social rejection faced by those marginalised for their identity. Indeed, when suspicious police officers probe Mounir at the opening of the novel, they reduce his identity to being a ‘solitaire qui aime lire et qui est devenu, à force de lire, obsédé par le moindre petit bruit extérieur’, a solitary person who likes to read, and who has become, through reading, obsessed by the slightest outside noise. In the eyes of the authorities, and in his own eyes (‘je ne suis rien’, I am nothing), Mounir has no fundamental essence beyond his race and sexuality; he is an observer who reads about, but does not participate in, the society of today. Mounir’s outsider status within the French society is emphasised by his neighbour Madame Marty. Indeed, the elderly neighbour vocalises a hostile, xenophobic mindset by justifying her anxiety solely on the basis of Mounir’s ethnicity, claiming ‘j’ai peur de toi… tu es arabe, j’ai peur de toi,’ (I fear you) before denouncing him to the police.
Yet, as the novel progresses, we discover a more complex nature to Madame Marty, herself an outsider. Indeed, in a recollection of more amicable discussions later in the text, Marty describes the isolation provoked by the loss of her sister, and the abandonment of her husband. Indeed, regarding the latter she describes how her refusal to leave Paris with her husband and son for the quiet Ardèche region left her completely excluded from the family she raised, with her husband decrying that ‘tu n’as jamais été réellement sa mère,’ (you have never really been his mother). Excluded for her refusal to ignore her own ambitions of life in Paris, a city that is ‘toute ma vie’ (her whole life), the woman finds herself confined instead to ‘un miniscule studio de 14 mètres carrés où elle attendait la mort qui ne voulait pas encore d’elle.’ (a tiny 14 square metre studio where she waited for death, which didn’t want her yet’). The negated active verb ‘vouloir’, used to personify death, reinforces the theme of rejection further - not even death is willing to accept Madame Marty, who is trapped alone in a room so small that it may as well not exist. And thus, we see why Marty exclaims to Mounir ‘Je suis aussi perdue que toi. Tout aussi seule que toi. Dans la mort déjà’ - the suffering of isolation, a suffering that results from the very fact of identity, be it racial or gender, sets both characters as lonely outsiders, excluded from a world they can only inhabit in the most superficial sense.
Dependence on others, and on religion, becomes a means of escaping the entrapment of marginalised identity. Yet this dependance on others necessarily relies on self-denial, on the abnegation of a crucial aspect of identity. For Mounir, we see this clearly through his struggle to reconcile his homosexuality and his relation with Islam. Indeed, when describing his experiences of homosexuality as a teenager in Morocco, he notes frustration with the objectification of his body by older men, who saw him as little more than ‘ta peau, ton sexe, tes fesses, ton trou’, an objectified, dehumanised enumeration of genitalia. In response to this, Mounir seeks Islam as a means of regaining subjectivity - ‘la prière m’a sauvé, m’a apporté un sens, m’a éloigné de l’homosexualité,’ (prayer saved me, gave me meaning, distanced me from homosexuality). Mounir can only give value and ‘meaning’ to his life by abnegating a crucial aspect of himself, his sexuality. Yet, the value of this is ephemeral - just a means of escape to ‘sortir de cette détresse’ (to escape this distress) of harassment by men, a point further demonstrated by the distinct time limitations placed on his involvement with religion ‘j’ai continué de prier pendant deux ans,’ (I continued to pray for two years). Claims to have found true meaning through religion thus appear suspect from a reader’s perspective.
This suspicion is validated as Mounir returns to his present perspective, as a forty year old living in Paris. Mentions of religion are scarce, and we see a homosexual relationship with a police officer Antoine. This relationship represents not only a complete abnegation of his former rejection of homosexuality for religion but also of his Moroccan identity more broadly. Indeed, this is (at least according to his own recollection) the very police officer interrogating Mounir on account of racism, a man whose eyes are described in unwieldy asyndeton as full of ‘distance. Du reniement. Du rejet. Du racisme.’ Why does Mounir choose to love that which hates him most? We see the answer whilst he kisses Antoine in a suburban metro train. The protagonist emphasises the brief ecstasy, the brief escape that love with the oppresser offers, an ‘amour qui… se fichant complètement de qui vous êtes, vous élève jusqu’au 21e ciel, et juste après, vous fracasse sans pitié’, (a love that, utterly careless of who you are, brings you to seventh heaven and, just after, smashes you without pity). The eternal heaven promised by religion is replaced by a ephemeral ‘21e ciel’, a temporary fix that, like a drug, will only ultimately serve to bring the character back to earth, cracked and tormented by the self-denial necessary for the brief escape.
Through the fragmented structure of the novel, replete with memory lapses, we come to see the ultimate effect of Mounir’s self-denial of his identity, revealing what lies at the intersection of those marginalised on account of identity - a state of amnesia, a liminal existence. Note the wavering first person narrative voice used in the text, well demonstrated by Mounir’s perception of Antoine. When first recounting the story of his relationship with the police officer, Mounir firmly underscores the identity of his lover Antoine through reiteration ‘C’est lui qui m’a interrogé au commissariat. Lui. Lui, ’ (He’s the one who interrogated me at the police station. Him. Him’). The ending marks a stark contrast, with a complete denial of his existence ‘Antoine est une fiction. Il existe et il n’existe pas,’ (Antoine is a fiction. He exists and doesn’t exist). The antitheses present in the latter statement demonstrate that patterns of denial expand beyond Mounir’s sense of self towards his sense of others in the text as well. Indeed, so deep is Antoine in a cycle of self-denial, that it is impossible to ascertain what truly happens in the novel. The frequent flashbacks, within Mounir’s personal life back to Morocco, within Madame Marty’s life, back to world war two and the disappearance of her sister, among others, reveal a narrative voice that is constantly wondering, lost in the past lives of others. Further structural evidence of detachment of reality can be demonstrated by the frequent use of free indirect speech within the text, where words are written in the second person voice without citation, only to then be retracted as internal thoughts. Note the accusation of the police officers, ‘tu es un terroriste en marche’, (you are a terrorist on the move), then retracted as an internal thought ‘Leurs yeux se sont chargés de me transmettre le message,’ (their eyes were loaded, sending me this message). The internal and external are blurred, and we are unable to rely on Mounir’s perception of reality. Self-denial on the basis of identity thus expands in the novel to encapsulate denial of all, a questioning of the entire story told by Mounir.
And thus, within Abdellah Taïa’s la vie lente, we can see what occurs in modern society to those marginalised on account of their identity. Exclusion and isolation dominate, leaving characters scarcely alive, superficially existent. A desire to escape this entails a dependence on others (or on faith itself). However, like a drug, this dependence is ultimately limited in scope, and with the capacity to harm, for it requires the abnegation of another crucial part of identity in order to be achieved. And thus, in a solemn presentation of modern life for those marginalised on account race, faith and gender, Taïa perceives a repeated cycle of self-denial, tending towards a broader amnesia, to a liminal space on the very margins of existence.
Taïa, Abdellah. 2020. La vie lente (Paris, France: Points)
 Taïa, Abdellah. 2020. La vie lente (Paris, France: Points), p. 113.
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