Shantytown Kid by Azouz Begag

Shantytown Kid (Le Gone du Chaâba) from Azouz Begag is the final selection Emma made for our virtual Xmas gift exchange. I’m going to begin by saying that this was not a book I would have bought without Emma’s nudge. In fact, I’d never heard of it, and even if I had, I doubt that I would have bought it as I do not usually enjoy books written through the eyes of a child. Lest I seem too inflexible, there are, of course, a few exceptions to that, but experience has taught me to generally avoid books with either a child protagonist or narrator. So that preamble brings me back to Shantytown Kid, an “autobiographical novel” that follows Azouz, who was born in 1957, picking up his story sometime in the early sixties and ending in 1968. So not many years in the life of a child, and of course the story is told by a now adult Begag. Azouz Begag’s parents were illiterate Algerian immigrants who came to France in 1949. They settled in Lyon, and Azouz was born in a Lyon shantytown. These days, the author, who has a doctorate in Economics,  is a politician and a writer.

The story begins, as the title suggests in Le Chaâba, a shantytown in Lyon, a place without electricity and no running water. That also means no toilets, but more of that later. While the shantytown lacks facilities, it doesn’t lack a strong sense of community, and we see this facet of Le Chaâba repeatedly through the book. One example is the way the women squabble over the water pump by day, but bury their arguments when the men come home, and in another instance (which is hilarious, by the way), the women and children combine forces–forming an ad hoc and combative neighbourhood watch assault team to discourage the lively prostitution trade that flourishes right outside of their territory.  

Begag relates the pivotal classroom incidents and friendships which shaped his life and his decision to “prove that I was capable of being like them.” ‘Them‘ in this case being the French schoolchildren who laugh at Azouz’s use of Arabic vocabulary. Of course, mixing with French children who live in houses and not shacks serves to highlight the differences between Azouz’s life and the expectations of French children.

I knew I lived in a shantytown of shacks made of planks of wood and corrugated iron roofs and that it was the poor who lived that way. I had gone several times to Alain’s home in the middle of the Avenue Monin, where his family lived in a real house. I could see it was much nicer than our shacks. And there was so much space. His house alone was as big as the whole of le Chaâba put together. He had his own room, with a desk and books and a wardrobe for his clothes. At each visit my eyes nearly came out of their sockets with astonishment. I was too ashamed to tell him where I lived. That is why Alain had never been to Le Chaâba. He was not the sort to enjoy rummaging in the garbage dumped on the embankment, or hanging onto the sides of the garbage truck, or getting involved in extorting money from the hookers and the homos. Besides, did he even know what homo meant?

On the down side, detailed here is a nighttime excursion to the outhouse and a genital exhibition between children. Minor asides, but what’s so interesting is the clear impact of education on Azouz. At times the lessons seem designed to illuminate differences between the French children and the Arab children–this isn’t true, of course, the lessons are culturally based in subjects such as manners, etiquette, and hygiene. But the result is that the Arabic children are effectively alienated even further–unless they’re like Azouz and set out to impress the teacher–even at the cost of alienating their fellow Arabic classmates.

Rather than a cohesive narrative, the book is basically a series of incidents that take place in the shantytown, in Azouz’s schools and in the home his family later moves to. One of the best scenes takes place when rubbish is dumped next to the shantytown and the residents go hunting for anything of value. Throughout these scenes runs a strong thread examining identity and solidarity, and the  inevitable tug-of-war that occurs between one culture’s values when confronted with an adopted country. Some parents who bring their children to another country (or whose children are born in an adopted country) seem horrified when the children begin to integrate, but isn’t that a healthy development? Ideally two cultures should be meshed equally, but when one  of those cultures is considered to be a so-called prestige culture, while another is not, just how does a child accept or filter out cultural values when subjected to peer pressure, family expectations and the desire to belong? Shantytown Kid sensitively illustrates all these difficulties faced by Azouz as he makes some irrevocable decisions at a crucial early age. In one scene, he’s even held up by the teacher as an example against his own race, and in another a pied-noir teacher condescendingly corrects  Azouz on all matters Algerian.

He was really modest, my teacher. There he was, explaining my origins to me demonstrating how little I knew of Arab culture, and he dared tell me that he spoke Arabic nearly as well as I did!

As crass as the teacher is at times, he still appreciates Algerian culture–a rare thing at the time with anti-Algerian sentiment boiling away and culminating in France in October 17, 1961. As Azouz tries to navigate both worlds, he inevitably and consciously makes a decision to be “french,” and that decision comes at a cost. For me, however, the most touching parts of the book are not the episodes of Azouz’s life, but the struggles of Azouz’s father who despairs when families leave the shantytown and move to flats. While he expresses this despair as disloyalty in the departing families, Azouz’s father distress is founded in the threat to culture and loss of community, and as the families disperse, his anguish seems based in doubt about the future and fear of lost values.

So thanks Emma for pointing me towards a book I’d never heard of and one I enjoyed. Strangely enough I related to it in some ways.



Filed under Begag Azouz, Fiction

8 responses to “Shantytown Kid by Azouz Begag

  1. I’m glad you liked it despite the child narrator. I didn’t know you didn’t like books with children narrators (I should have guessed, though as I don’t like them either, usually and we often have similar responses to books)

    This novel is interesting because it shows the power of the school system. Since the Third Republic, school teachers have been the armed arm of integration. It fell into pieces in the 1980s, I think. (PS : According to surveys, Couscous is the favourite dish among French people. Isn’t it strange?)

    For the record, there are still shantytowns in Lyon. Only they are populated with Roms now. One is visible from the highway with a sign “Here we live, we read, we laugh” or something like that. When I drive to work early in the morning, I often see women with plastic cans walking along the road to take some water at the fire hydrant. It makes me sad to witness this in such a rich country.

    • Roms? Gypsies or Romanian?

      You know I watch a lot of French films and for years I seemed to see only films set in Paris or else the French (well to do) on holiday. It’s a lot like watching Woody Allen’s New York films and you can begin to imagine that everyone lives in million dollar Manhattan apartments. More recently I’ve watched many French crime films that show a different side of France, and then there are film makers who are concerned with integration (Is there any Ham Left?), for example.

  2. Interesting. Not a book I’ve herad of nor did I think there would be shantytowns in Lyon, much less that there still are some. I don’t vene think there are any in Paris. Not anymore in any case but on the outskirts.
    There are areas in Paris where they knocked down small houses and built HLMs. The Algerina population was very upset as those small houses could be used to create a community feeling. Old people were sitting in the front and supervised the children and chatted. Not much of a community feeling in front of a HLM. This leads to more criminality.

    • There are shantytowns around Paris too, mostly around highways, like in Lyon.
      The police sometimes go there and arrest illegal immigrants. It leads to surrealist situations since you’re French when you are born in France. So, some children from these communities are French, go to school and can be taken away from it to be sent back to a country they don’t know. Education sans frontières fights against this.

      I wish that candidates to the presidential election remember that being president isn’t being the CFO of the country and that economy isn’t the only thing that matters.

      • Yes, around Paris, I meant there are none inside. I must have misunderstood you and thought they were inside of Lyon.
        I don’t really believe in the independency of presidents or prime ministers. A fact I find deplorable.

  3. Prime Ministers and Presidents occasionally pay lip service to non-economic matters, but they measure success by GDP which leads to an inevitable distortion.

    Have you seen Haneke’s film Hidden (Cachet)? It deals in some very disturbing elements of French/Algerian history.

    I am slightly nervous of an “autobiographical novel”. As a concept that seems to make a claim for truth which it’s being a novel may not support. Put another way, is there any way of knowing how much of this happened? To what extent incidents have been packed together for dramatic effect? In a way I think I trust pure fiction more.

  4. Hello Max: Yes I have seen Caché and enjoyed it very much.
    I didn’t worry about that aspect of this autobiographical novel to be honest as I had decided up front that the author had probably meshed together incidents or interpreted them, now differently, in adulthood. Back to that child narrator/protagonist idea.

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