The life before us, by Émile Ajar (pseudonym), was published by the first time in 1975, after wining the prestigious French Award Goncourt. Since then, it has been republished many times and translated into other languages.
The story introduces us to Momo, an orphaned Muslim child, who tells his shocking story. He lives with Madame Rosa, an old Jewish former prostitute and survivor of Auschwitz, in Belleville, a Parisian slum where live badly illegal immigrants and all sorts of losers. She takes take long-term care of the sons of prostitutes, who are unable to them properly due to their jobs. Although Momo is one of those children, no money to send her to take care of him, but Madame Rosa does not complain about it because she feels a special appreciation for him. This affection is mutual. So, when Momo notices that she is ill, does everything possible to fight against her decrepitude; helped by Lola, a former Senegalese boxer, and Walouma, a street sweeper from Cameroon.
I read this novel three times in a period of 30 years (never read a book that I liked more than twice). I was so moved by its reading, the way is narrated. The author was right to resort to a style called skaz*, putting into the mouth of a teenager all the words written with the lexical and syntactic restrictions that entails. Perhaps that is why the reader inevitably feels empathy towards Momo, despite the harshness of some of his reflections, as when he analyses his short life and being aware that this will not improve, he tells himself that the only thing can become a pimp or a terrorist. There is also a scene that the tension rises by the unexpected arrival of the father of Momo. He and Madame Rosa have a bitter quarrel in which the known conflict between Arabs and Jews is clear. Momo does not understand of religions, but yes the respect that should have towards others. But one of the most moving moments is when Momo speaks of old age.
Old people may not be what they used to be, but they’re worth as much as anyone else. They have feelings same as you and me, and sometimes, they suffer even more because they’re too old to defend themselves. Their worst enemy is Nature, which can be a very ugly customer and kills them by slow torture…
If the author’s intention was that the reader saw the world through the eyes of a child, he has succeeded, because reading this novel is immersed in thoughts of Momo, his thoughts on racism, loneliness and fear. Nevertheless, he does with a rare blend of humour and ingenuity, as he wouldn’t want to forget this thing called hope.
*Skaz is a special type of narration cultivated particularly in Russian literature since 1830 whose roots date back to oral folklore traditions. It is characterized by a personal narrator, a simple man of the people with restricted intellectual horizons and linguistic competence, addressing listeners from his own social milieu in a markedly oral speech.