Books

Stale baguettes and love affairs in Paris

PARIS INTERLUDE by Naim Kattan Translated by Sheila Fischman

Mark Czarnecki October 22 1979
Books

Stale baguettes and love affairs in Paris

PARIS INTERLUDE by Naim Kattan Translated by Sheila Fischman

Mark Czarnecki October 22 1979

Stale baguettes and love affairs in Paris

Books

PARIS INTERLUDE by Naim Kattan Translated by Sheila Fischman

(McClelland and Stewart, $12.95)

Few immigrants to Canada have brought with them as rich a cultural heritage as Naim Kattan. Born an Iraqi Jew and raised on Hebrew and Arabic, he learned English and French while still at school and became fluent in the latter language during his post-war student days in Paris. Paris Interlude (originally published as Les fruits arrachés), an autobiographical novel based on his sojourn there, is the second in a series that follows his protagonist, Méir, from his Iraqi homeland to Paris and later to the New World. In the previously published Farewell, Babylon, young Méir grows up in Baghdad and attempts to resolve a host of conflicts that would frustrate four United Nations: how can I be loyal to Iraq when the government ignores a pogrom?; should our national literature be based on indigenous traditions or should we permit Western influences?; where will I find true love in a land of arranged marriages and officially sanctioned prostitution? Where else except Paris, but the engrossing anecdotes of Farewell, Babylon are absent from this second stage in Méir’s odyssey. The same concerns are dealt with here but only briefly and often incomprehensibly so that a reader unacquainted with Rattan’s work is at a great disadvantage. There is a rationale behind these omissions, however: this is the story of Méir’s sentimental and sexual education, and his days are spent on a romantic carousel of earthly delights spun round by beautiful and adoring females. Kattan very successfully re-creates the joy of these affairs and the breathless pace at which innocence races toward experience. In between hotel-room trysts, our irresistible hero broods over his family’s fate, world literature (brief put-downs of Albert Camus and Romain Rolland indicate that he is indeed a student, though of what is never made clear), not to mention what to do with his life once his scholarship runs out. That one’s easy: decide which of his ladies he really loves, then escape with her to America.

But the ghosts of sensualists past have overcrowded the literary beds of Paris. To evoke once again the missed rendezvous, the painful phone calls, the irritating crumbs from freshly baked baguettes strewn over love-rumpled sheets is no longer sufficient: writers about Paris need fresher eyes than most, and Kattan has not taken full advantage of his story’s potential. Gone is the double vision of East viewed by West which made the earlier book so engaging and which, reversed, might have produced an equally fascinating work. And his cryptic narrative style, which specializes in presenting an event, describing its aftermath but omitting the event itself, has not been aided by careless editing and what appears to be a hasty translation.

Mark Czarnecki