- Hostages of Authenticity:Paul Smaïl, Azouz Begag, and the Invention of the Beur Author
. . . like it or not, all writers are "cultural impersonators."2Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
The surprise of the 1997 literary season in France was the novel Vivre me tue, written by the now-notorious Paul Smaïl. A "coming to writing" story of its narrator—also named Paul Smaïl, Vivre me tue is set in late-1990s Paris, where the 27 year-old aspiring novelist and son of Moroccan immigrants writes his story through flashbacks and tangents, in prose peppered with references to Melville, Shakespeare, Genet, and Rimbaud. Despite his education—Paul holds a master's degree in comparative literature from a Parisian university—he finds himself reduced to delivering pizza by day; by night he works the desk at a Pigalle hotel that rents its rooms by the hour. If the day job is his bread and butter, the night job offers him access to two crucial things: a word processer and, between checking in couples without suitcases, time to write. The hotel desk is as close as Paul comes to "a room of his own," and he uses these moments to reflect on the complex negotiations required of the Beur3 generation, and specifically on his own experiences of discrimination and racism, his love life, and the downward spiral of his brother, a gay bodybuilder addicted to steroids. The narrative's resonance with contemporary social issues of inequality and disenfranchisement, coupled with its inventive intertextuality and witty use of language surely accounted, in some measure, for the book's success; sales figures estimated that by October of 1997 it was selling at a rate of 600 copies per day.4 [End Page 113]
In addition to the book's literary qualities, social and media factors may also have played a role in its popularity. Although Vivre me tue was billed by its publisher and initially hailed in the press as a novel, the onomastic coincidence of narrator-protagonist and author led a number of critics to read the text as an autobiography, thus endowing the text with a two-fold value: it was not only a good story but also, ostensibly, a true story. Smaïl undoubtedly contributed to this misunderstanding by cloaking his persona in enigma: "Je refuse de communiquer," he wrote in a press release. "Ni photos, ni interviews, ni rien. Ce que j'ai à dire, je l'écris."5 Responding in writing to a series of questions faxed to him by a reporter from Le Nouvel Observateur, Smaïl also fanned the fire by claiming to be in Casablanca (the Moroccan city where the character Paul Smaïl lands at the end of Vivre me tue), and by responding ambiguously to questions about the generic status of his work ("Oui, il y a beaucoup de ma vie dans Vivre me tue, et, oui, il y a aussi de la fiction"6). The media desire for Vivre me tue to be a personal testimonial suggests something beyond an incapacity to separate fact from fiction. With a French first name and a family name of Arabic resonance, Paul Smaïl had the potential to be a powerful cultural signifier: a living amalgam of France's colonial past and post-colonial present, Smaïl was no less than the great Beur hope for French letters.
While the press quickly made it clear that Smaïl was a pseudonym—the name purportedly having been changed to preserve the author's desire to let his work speak for itself—by late November of 1997, rumors had already begun to circulate amongst the Parisian literati: "Paul Smaïl" was reported to be a pseudonym for French writer Jack-Alain Léger.7 In 2001, Le Monde des Livres called Smaïl's status as a pseudonym no more than a "secret de polichinelle," and in 2003 Jack-Alain Léger revealed, in a book of his own titled On en est là, that he was indeed the author of Vivre me tue (and of 3 other novels published in the intervening years under the Smaïl pseudonym).8 The media chatter surrounding this...