Would you read a book about the right to die by someone who committed suicide five years afterward? A colleague handed me this book as he was cleaning off his desk for the summer and said I’d enjoy it. Since I had loved his recommendation of Le gone du Chaâba by Azouz Begag, I decided to push past my initial distaste of the front cover (two naked figures—a child sitting on a woman’s lap—with stones for heads and black dots for navels) and my confusion about the back page description: “The story of a little Arab boy’s love for an old Jewish woman”. Love, like romantic love, I wondered?
But not three pages in, I was hooked. The characters, the setting, the first-person narration, the symbolism and the surprising ending make it obvious why this novel won the Prix Goncourt in 1975 for “the best and most imaginative prose work of the year”.
The story takes place in 1970, in a run-down seven-storey walk-up in Belleville, a working class neighbourhood of Paris that has seen waves of Jewish, North African and sub-Saharan African immigration, or what the narrator Momo simply calls Jews, Arabs and Blacks. It’s a world of drugs, prostitution, overcrowding, poverty and petty thieving, but also a community where ethnic, religious, linguistic and sexual differences are accepted without judgment.
Momo is the son of a prostitute who has been entrusted to the care of Madame Rosa, a former prostitute herself, who runs a clandé, a clandestine child-care operation. She usually has a gaggle of kids in her two-bedroom apartment, receiving a monthly income for their care from their parents and family members who want to keep them out of state foster care. Momo is Madame Rosa’s favourite, and she keeps him on even though she hasn’t received his monthly payment for three years.
Momo, speaking in his rambling youthful candour, strewn with slang and malapropisms, quickly introduces the two main problems of the story. First, he doesn’t really feel loved and is broken hearted at not having a mother, and second, the six flights of stairs are becoming too much for Madame Rosa, who weighs 95 kg (209 lbs) and is asthmatic to boot. He recounts his journey to find love and then to protect Madame Rosa from being forced to live “as a vegetable” in a hospital as her senility and health problems progress. She survived Auschwitz and ever since has had a terrible fear of being tortured by the Ordre des médecins (Order of Physicians), a torture she defines as being kept alive against her will.
Halfway through the novel, an event occurs which becomes symbolic for Momo. He follows a beautiful woman who has shown him some kindness and discovers she works at an overdubbing studio. The film keeps getting rewound until the voice actors get the lines just right and Momo is entranced to see dogs and cars moving backward, gunshot victims come back to life, collapsed houses get put back together, blood flow back into bodies and wounds healed. He starts to play the film tape of his own life in his head and sees Madame Rosa go backward in time to her youth, young and beautiful again. It even triggers a vague early memory of someone who must be his mother. He becomes obsessed with this idea of making time go in reverse and this becomes a major image and theme of the story.
But the pivotal idea is Momo’s misunderstanding of the phrase, le droit des peuples de disposer d’eux-mêmes, the right of a people to “dispose” of themselves, which he has heard in the context of the Algerian independence movement. In French disposer de can mean to place or deal with something or it can mean to exercise the right to self-determination. Momo, to Doctor Katz’s dismay, believes that Madame Rosa should have the right to die of her health problems.
This is a story that couldn’t have been told in the third person. The intimacy and self-deception of a first-person narrator are critical to the success of this unusual novel. I was just reading at www.well-storied.com that every protagonist needs a Lie they believe and must confront. One of Momo’s lies is his belief he’s ten years old and another is his belief he is unloved. When at last these lies are dismantled, he is able to stop reacting and start acting. Another reason this story simply had to be told in the first person is that Momo’s street language is essential for getting us into both the setting and his character. Whether he is talking about shitting on the floor or the hookers and pimps he knows, the earthiness of his language is both startling and comical. Plus, as a child, he is brutally honest, saying things like:
If Madame Rosa was a dog, she’d already have been spared, but we’re always much nicer with dogs than with human people whom it’s not legal to allow to die without suffering.
With us, it’s even worse than in nature, because aborting old people isn’t allowed even when nature is suffocating them and their eyes are popping out of their head.
Everyone knew in the neighbourhood that it wasn’t possible to get aborted at the hospital even when you were being tortured and they were able to make keep you alive by force, as long as you were still a hunk of meat and they could stick a needle in you.
(My loose translations)
Yet the novel is full of tender moments, as Momo becomes increasingly anxious about Madame Rosa’s declining health. He is philosophical, poetic, using his facility for words to reflect on life, death, suffering, childhood and love. An Amazon reviewer compared The Life Before Us to The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger whose narrator is equally disgusted with society though from an upper crust perspective.
-This novel is a great model of a three-act plot structure where the character is first forced to confront his inner conflict and then springs into action to take care of the external problem.
-First person narration is a vehicle for letting one character’s voice dominate throughout, not just during dialogue. It takes you so much closer to the character, and yet provides a wonderfully biased view of their world (just like in An Artist of the Floating World).
-If you need two-dimensional supporting characters, make them colourful, e.g. a fire-breathing performer who shocks Madame Rosa out of her stupors, four brothers built like oxen who carry Doctor Katz up and down the stairs because even he is getting too old for it, a transvestite ex-boxer who has a real maternal instinct, a retired carpet seller who confuses the Quran and Victor Hugo…
So did La vie devant soi change my attitude toward euthanasia or the right to die position? I guess the issue is the medicalization of illness and death, and our fear of death and pain. We have the technology to keep people alive indefinitely, if vegetatively, and we have the means to end people’s lives relatively painlessly and quickly. What if we simply respected a person’s wish not to seek treatment? They might suffer greater pain and discomfort but for a shorter period of time. What bothers me in the euthanasia and right to die debates is that people don’t want to let nature take its course, whereas Romain Gary’s position, through the voice of Momo, is that the suffering of an elderly person should not be unnecessarily prolonged through medical intervention, though he does seem to be in favour of “abortion” for the elderly, which to me is a contradiction. I don't know, it’s complicated, it’s complex, it’s a beast of our own creation, and we don’t really know how to tame it. You, on the other hand, will have to read the novel to make up your own mind, if possible, and to find out what happens to Madame Rosa and Momo in the end.