Pity the homeland—such a tender, fragile thing! You may have noticed some nervousness of late about the safety and sanctity of our soil. Homelands are ever-anxious brutes. Way back in the early 1990s, the French, fretting that their Frenchness was growing dilute (as we at the time fretted too, and watched Pat Buchanan on TV), passed edicts to preserve the imperiled patrie, to cinch up the borders, send the swarthy and unpapered back to the lands that papered them. In response Didier van Cauwelaert penned Un Aller Simple, which won the 1994 Prix Goncourt. (He has written over a dozen other novels, but none of them have yet been shipped across the sea.) Released here almost ten years later under the title One-Way, it is a smart and serious little book about identity and immigration, tourism and the exotic, the politics of the global economy, the power of narrative, and that elusive, illusory, and generally untrustworthy character: the authentic. It is also extremely funny.
One-Way’s protagonist, Aziz Kemal, is a wise young ingénue with a wide-open heart. Gently ironic and forgiving to a fault, the world happens to him. It begins happening to him early on, when he is either accidentally stolen by Gypsies in the backseat of a purloined car or rescued by the self-same Gypsies from the car wreck that killed his parents. No matter: Roots are not important here, which is more or less the point.
The Gypsies name him after the car in which he was found (“an Ami 6 of the Citroën family,” slurred into Aziz), raising him in the suburban slums of Marseilles as one of their own (almost). His Arab last name comes with his false identity papers (“maybe K’s were just in that year,” quips the Kafkaesque Kemal). They also identify him as a citizen of Morocco, born in the village of Irghiz, which never existed anywhere but beneath the document forger’s pen. French citizenship would have cost extra, Aziz protests: “I have my principles.”
His principles soon catch up to him. Cops raid his wedding reception, presumably tipped off by his fiancée’s brothers, who don’t want her marrying an outsider. He finds himself set up, accused of stealing the ring he’d bought his bride, and about to be shipped off to Morocco. “‘The government has passed measures against illegal aliens. I mean, for illegal aliens,” a policeman friend informs him. “And he explained that, basically, to fight racism in France, they had to send the immigrants back home.”
Aziz at first protests, but when he realizes that he’s been abandoned by his lover and cut off by the Gypsies,Aziz is “eager to be far away, to go back where I didn’t come from.” On the plane ride to Morocco, Jean-Pierre Schneider, the “humanitarian attaché” assigned by the government to accompany him “home,” asks Aziz about Irghiz. He tells him “the legend of the gray men … who lived in an utterly secret valley without roads and without progress, a green paradise with prehistoric flowers that still grew in the shelter of the bare mountains that tourists visited. But they had no idea of the valley, because the gray men swore an oath to keep the secret from generation to generation.” Schneider is entranced, and off they go, in search of an imaginary homeland.
More adventures follow: jellyfish stings, “unidentified soup,” a beautiful young French sociologist-slash-tour guide, a novel within a novel, “hope before the end of the world,” many illusions and various flawed returns. And the homeland? The homeland is shaken, but it survives.The wretched thing always survives.