My rating: 4 stars
I haven’t read many books by twentieth-century French authors, so I was both excited and nervous about finally picking up one by Romain Gary. He was born Roman Kacew in Vilnius but moved to France when he was only fourteen years old. Uma Vida à Sua Frente (The Life Before Us in the English translation) focuses on the strong and touching bond between a motherless boy and the woman who took care of him. This heart-warming story made me frequently smile and almost cry, while it exposed the possible consequences of getting old.
The narrator of the book is Mohammed, a young boy who lived with Madame Rosa, an ageing Jewish woman who was a former prostitute and Auschwitz survivor. She took care of various children, whose mothers were also prostitutes, in exchange for money. Mohammed was really curious about who his mother was and wondered how Madame Rosa knew that he was a Muslim if he had been living with her since he was little. Although Madame Rosa was Jewish, she wanted Mohammed to observe the traditions of his heritage.
The diversity of the French population is showcased throughout the book. Mohammed lived in Belleville, Paris, and had African, Arab and Jewish neighbours. There are references to casual xenophobia and racism which are not always connected with hate but with preconceived ideas about other people and cultures. The innocence with which Mohammed recalls some of the xenophobic and sexist remarks he overheard and sometimes repeated made me uncomfortably smile.
In fact, the overall writing style conveys the innocence of a child who is already starting to pay attention to the complexities of society. The majority of the events recounted took place when Mohammed thought he was ten years old. However, sometimes he seems to be too mature for his age. In the context of the story such precocity didn’t bother me, seeing that his real age was an enigma, as he hadn’t been registered, and that he also had to learn how to take care of himself once Madame Rosa’s health started to deteriorate.
Mohammed narrates the story almost as if he is having an engaging conversation. In some instances, he even addresses the readers directly. The information conveyed in the last chapter of the book emotionally emphasises the significance of this technique. Nevertheless, sometimes he ends up reiterating previously revealed information about certain characters, what feels too dreary.
Uma Vida à Sua Frente (translated from the French – La Vie Devant Soi – by Joana Cabral) doesn’t rely on an intricate plot. What makes it shine is the tender relationship between Mohammed, who was looking for affection, and Madame Rosa. Whenever the story was somewhat dragging, a new interesting remark, for example about the limitations that result from old age, ended up recapturing my attention.