Habib Selmi's Novel "The Scents of Marie-Claire"

An East-Western Love Brawl

The French-Tunisian author Habib Selmi is one of the most important Tunisian authors writing in Arabic. Volker Kaminski places his new novel, describing a relationship between a Tunisian immigrant and a spirited Parisian woman, in the tradition of the great romance novels of world literature

Habib Selmi (photo: Lenos Verlag)
Habib Selmi, born in 1951 in Kairouan, Tunisia, is a professor of Arabic literature in Paris and has published seven novels, which have been translated into French, German, and Italian. <i>The Scents of Marie-Claire </i>was shortlisted for the Arabic Booker Prize in 2009

​​ Mahfouth, a Tunisian immigrant, does not believe in love. He leads the life of a loner in Paris, roaming the city by night like a modern-day heir to Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf". By day he teaches Arabic literature at a university, but the nights draw him outside to wander the abandoned streets in a restless odyssey, until he arrives at the hotel where he earns a living as a night porter.

One day, however, he meets the love of his life. He comes across her – where else in Paris – in a café, sitting alone at a table. First glances are quickly exchanged, followed by a few banal words. Mahfouth pulls his chair over to Marie-Claire's table – as Selmi puts it, he does not even have to stand up: "a slight twist was enough to sit opposite her," and their initial intensive flirtation blossoms into a love story.

It seems as if Mahfouth could not have met a better woman. Marie-Claire, a rather commonplace but lovable Parisian with great joie de vivre, dreams of the big wide world. She candidly admits that she met many "great boys", men from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Algeria, during her two years at university (she dropped out because she did not want to become a teacher). She has read "the most wonderful foreign novels" and toured around several countries. Mahfouth instantly falls in love with this spirited woman, and it appears to be a win-win situation for both of them when Marie-Claire gives up her attic flat and moves in with Mahfouth a few months later.

Cultural gap or everyday relationship problems?

Yet Mahfouth has trouble coming to terms with his new role in a long-term relationship. To begin with, he enjoys Marie-Claire's presence, is crazy about her body, her scent, her charisma. Marie-Claire turns his life on its head, redecorates his apartment, which she finds old-fashioned, removing the wallpaper and carpets and buying modern furniture to create a home for the two of them. But then come the first problems, a series of arguments and jealous tiffs, and the reader wonders whether these difficulties are down to the cultural gap between them or merely "normal" relationship problems that crop up everywhere in the world.

​​ Habib Selmi's seventh novel, shortlisted for the Arab Booker Prize in 2009, investigates the possibilities for a stable Arab-European relationship – in a light and entertaining manner. With a precise and subtle eye, Selmi observes the diverging perceptions on either side, the different approaches to life. Rather like an experiment to establish the dynamics of a bi-cultural couple, the novel closely follows the process of attraction and repulsion in a contemporary relationship, which begins in euphoric intoxication and ends in misery.

The narrator's portrayal of Marie-Claire is sensitive and precise. Not only her love of plants, but also her pleasant sensibility as a whole make her a likeable character. Her interest in Mahfouth's life is genuine and honest, and she is very willing to take a back seat to his wishes.

Melancholy earnestness

Despite his cultural background, Mahfouth in contrast, the first-person narrator, by no means fulfils the cliché of the Arab lover. He is a reserved, introverted man lacking the characteristics of a dominating daredevil. All the more painful for him, then, that the relationship that began with great romance ends in failure. As if the narrator were aware of this himself, he seeks the reasons for that failure as he tells his story.

In painstaking detail, almost as if taking minutes, he focuses a microscope on the couple's life together, describing the ups and downs, the passing of days and months. Things come to a head during a camping holiday on Crete, with Mahfouth's unbeatable ineptness lending the episode an air of the grotesque. Touches like these give the novel its comic sides, despite its overwhelming sense of melancholy and earnestness.

Café in Paris (photo: AP)
"I could not believe that this exceptional, beautiful creature was mine... Mine and mine alone!" Rather like an experiment to establish the dynamics of a bi-cultural couple, Selmi's novel closely follows the process of attraction and repulsion in a contemporary relationship, writes Kaminski

​​ Ultimately, the differences between Mahfouth and Marie-Claire seem too great; both on the personal level and also before the backdrop of their different origins, their problems seem irreconcilable. Mahfouth, the immigrant with a village upbringing plagued by loneliness, cannot find harmony with the confident, thoroughly Western urban woman. Their silence and mutual misunderstandings become ever greater.

Love as an unfathomable puzzle

Habib Selmi also provides very detailed descriptions of the couple's sex lives, perfectly demonstrating how to tackle the subject in literary form without drifting into embarrassment. It comes as no surprise that their gradually crumbling relationship fails in the bedroom too. While sensuality and sexuality are initially a source of great happiness for both of them, as the book goes on they turn into a frustrating lack of fulfilment that finally comes to a head in an éclat.

One evening, a drunk Mahfouth loses control of himself and tries to force Marie-Claire into sex. Although he does not actually rape her, he ends up calling her a whore in the ensuing argument. She cannot forgive this insult plucked out of thin air, and the end of their relationship is now inevitable.

This failure no doubt reveals a fundamental conviction on the part of the author, who – as he writes in the afterword – considers love an unfathomable puzzle, its coming and going remaining concealed from our understanding. It is not least this assessment that brings Selmi's quiet novel close to the great romance stories of world literature.

Volker Kaminski

© Qantara.de 2010

The Scents of Marie-Claire: A Modern Arabic Novel, translated from the Arabic by Fadwa Al Qasem. American University in Cairo Press 2010, 172 pages

Habib Selmi, born in Kairouan/Tunisia in 1951, is a university lecturer of Arabic and has lived in Paris since 1983. He has published novels and short story collections and is widely regarded as one of the most important Tunisian authors writing in Arabic.

Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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