First Fictions: New First Novels & Short Story Collections

Tea in the Harem, by Mehdi Charef, trans. Ed Emery. (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1989.) From Rockaway, by Jill Eisenstadt. (New York: Vintage, 1988.) Toni, by Fiorella De Luca Calce. (Montreal: Guernica, 1990.)

Book reviews by Rob Couteau




Published in:
The Bloomsbury Review,
April / May 1991. (CO: Denver)

Throughout the 1980s and now into the ’90s, first novels have frequently emerged that explore the coming-of-age protagonist and the thinly disguised confession reset in novelistic form. There’s nothing new about a first novel relying so heavily on lived experience, but what’s noteworthy is the continuing message of pointlessness, personal greed, and rapaciousness. In the words of author Mehdi Charef, “outstanding players who bring crowds to their feet all learnt their art on pieces of wasteland, in the survival of the fittest and the most selfish.” That he’s discussing soccer players is very much beside the point; this novelistic aside represents the epithet of an entire generation.

Of the first novels from this period, the bleakest to come to my attention is Charef’s Tea in the Harem. Originally published as Le thé au harem d’Archi Ahmed by Mercure de France in 1983, it was recently translated by Serpent’s Tail in the U.K. Charef is a skillful writer and, after being published at age thirty-one, he’s become the well-deserving recipient of critical acclaim. (Until then, he worked in an engineering factory in the Paris suburbs.) It’s not hard to see why. There’s a jolting, rapid pace to his prose, which deftly portrays the horrific imagery of modern life.

The setting is a housing project in the Paris suburbs where Majid, the son of Algerian immigrants, feels trapped. He’s surrounded by a foreign culture, limited by poverty, and lacking in enthusiasm regarding the few options that are available to him. From the very beginning, we are made aware that he feels

caught between two cultures, two histories, colors of skin. He’s neither black nor white. He has to invent his own roots, create his own reference points. For the moment, he’s waiting … waiting … waiting … He doesn’t want to have to think about it

Majid’s ennui is fueled by the ugliness of his surroundings and by the high-pitched tensions that exist between the tenants of the housing estate. Merciless fights between husbands and wives, between race-baiting Frenchmen and a new generation of Algerian French, and between the bitter roaming youth gangs and the frightened older generation, who attempt to defend themselves against this explosive, directionless energy–these are some of the daily conflicts witnessed by Majid.

Tea in the Harem is a book solidly planted in the world of the 1980s, with its collective awareness of a glaring division between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Yet, unlike Tom Wolfe’s overcelebrated The Bonfire of the Vanities, here the point of view is focused from deep within the center of poverty. In Charef’s prose, nothing is contrived; nothing is incompletely imagined. It’s a treatment reminiscent of Céline, especially because of his rhythmic language and the incessant message of despair that builds, staccato-like, around two characters who bang their heads against the wall of life. While they do occasionally partake of a Célinesque “uplifting pessimism” (in the sense that dark humor may be vivifying), more often than not they fail to be uplifted at all. Instead, they attempt to kill time through a series of numbing escapes into booze, drugs, sex, and petty theft. Thievery momentarily energizes them, and it finances, once again, the cycle of escape:

And when you do what you like, you’re saying that you deserve better than what you’ve got, and that you’ve the right to a better life. And what about emotions and feeling! No chance! The main thing is to fight the despair, find something to believe in, no matter what it takes.

The problem is, no one finds that “something” to believe in, especially here, in the housing estate:

The children grow up as part of the cement and concrete. They grow up and they begin to take on the characteristics of concrete: they’re dry and cold and hard, to all appearances indestructible–but they’ve got hidden cracks.

This also applies to many of those coming-of-age today, who confess, in growing numbers and with a lackluster matter-of-factness, to being stymied by the pointlessness of it all. If the 90s hasn’t yet assumed a character of its own, it seems to have magnified many of the darker concerns of the previous decade. For while Majid and his ne’er-do-well companion, Pat, are stymied by a lack of “challenging opportunities for employment,” there’s a deeper malaise tugging beneath the plot of an entire generation. The culture clash of groups portrayed here reflects a larger cultural fragmentation in the world today, with its resulting loss of self.

While Majid listens to the Sex Pistols sing “God Save the Queen,” Alex, of From Rockaway by Jill Eisenstadt, attends a college party in New England where she also listens to the Sex Pistols (and the Dead Kennedys, and the Fleshtones). She’s the only one from her hometown gang who goes away to college. No one else among the working-class group has the money, initiative, or smarts. After her successful (yet somewhat absurd) passage into campus life in New Hampshire, she returns to the equally absurd concerns of her gang, with its limited options in the small, narrow-minded world of Rockaway Beach.

While certain characters in Tea in the Harem suffer a cultural longing–a nostalgia for the “old ways” and for their now irretrievable symmetry–in Eisenstadt’s novel there’s nostalgia for childhood (which is symptomatic of the group’s fear of adulthood). As with the adults in Majid’s surroundings, there are no role models worthy of envy. With nothing to look forward to, Alex’s friends gaze backward: to fleeting emotional states that are no longer accessible.

Published after Charef’s work, Eisenstadt’s first novel shares notable similarities with his tale. Like Tea, it possesses the tone of autobiographical fiction. A note about the author informs us that she was “born and raised in Far Rockaway” and educated at a New England college–just like her protagonist, Alex. Rather than being burnt out, the characters of each book are simply incapable of ignition. Again, it’s not just a lack of money that stands in the way; it’s something else: something barely definable, yet as solid and unyielding as a concrete wall. But no one seems capable of comprehending the obstacle or overcoming it.

Finally, in Fiorella De Luca Calce’s Toni, elements emerge that signal a reconstruction of the self: a slow, deliberate regrouping of a battered yet undefeated spirit. Toni’s alienation from her parents causes her to wander through the rain (“Must have been walking in the rain for an hour [...] Was too angry, too damn cold”), where she–like the kids in Rockaway–succumbs to youthful nostalgia. Reminiscence leads her to a rooftop (where once “the spunkier ones even found a hideout on one of the roofs”) and to an old shack. Entering the beat-up structure, she stumbles into an unexpected adventure. Attacked because of mistaken identity, Toni is gradually nursed back to health by a group of runaways.

In addition to suffering similar wounds as the characters in Tea and From Rockaway, the figures in Toni have been abandoned by their families or have been offered no other choice but to run away because of abuse. They encounter the coldest of all worlds, and they do so from a position of greater poverty and vulnerability than the teenagers of Majid’s graffiti-strewn cosmos. Some are underage; some are running from the law; others are victims of sexual abuse. Yet banded together, they manage to construct a family and a household of their own. It’s not utopian by any means, but it works. It takes a while for her to believe it, but Toni finds a handful of friends who matter to her and on whom she can count. As a sense of physical and emotional security develops between them, they reawaken to the challenges of a life lived in a world almost stripped bare of meaning.

In many ways, these are the children of Nietzsche’s “second innocence”: living with a minimum of illusion, they are heroic because they have resumed the struggle. Yet, as a result of their wounding, they remain numb. Their emotional lives–if not yet crushed–are feeble things that need nourishment and care, as well as fortification to protect them from further assaults. Many are hardened on the outside (like Charef’s metaphor of concrete), yet they remain too soft inside: susceptible to rage, and prone to imitate the cold brutality that wounded them in the first place.

The significant thing about this first novel by De Luca Calce is that it intimates signs of change and contains characters that offer solutions. That they aren’t yet able to “infuse a transfiguration and fullness into things and poetize about them until they reflect back [one’s] fullness and joy in life” (Nietzsche) is more than forgivable. As the century reaches its close, such testimonials show that the individual emotional life has been truly threatened by impersonal social and collective forces, chilling the souls of an entire generation of youth. It remains to be seen whether confessional novels like Toni presage the kindling of a new spirit or if they merely reflect a final, sputtering, Last Hurrah of the soul.


Updated: 11 July 2011 | All text Copyright © 2012 | Rob Couteau | key words: First novels, coming of age novels, Tea in the Harem, by Mehdi Charef, trans. Ed Emery From Rockaway, by Jill Eisenstadt Toni, by Fiorella De Luca Calce