ELit Book Tip: Karim Miské’s Graphic Novel N’APPARTENIR

It could be his films, books or articles – for Karim Miské, everything revolves around one main question: belonging. From a young age, the son (b. 1964) of a Mauritanian diplomat and native Frenchwoman and writer sensed that he will not find his place anywhere – except in literature.

N’appartenir – “Unbelonging” is the title of the latest novel by Karim Miské who describes his identity conflict so vividly that a graphic novel has also been made together with the Austrian-French illustrator Antoine Silvestri.

“In the beginning was the shame”, the story commences in a biblical tone. “It is suspended in you, intangible, fatal, a cancer (…).” This is accompanied by the vividly coloured ink drawing by the then 7-year-old author with the noticeable hair quiff and black eyes that cast a stunned gaze at his family who still cannot believe what has just happened.

In a mad fit, shortly before his death, the beloved grandfather throws the word “bastard” at the child. Unexpectedly, the rage against the mother’s sins of consorting with an Arab – they were apparently forgotten long ago – unleashes itself and Karim understands, “There is only this one, unspeakable truth: you ought not to exist.”

This trauma pervades Miské’s life, making him anchorless and restless and constantly in search of himself. “The Arab in the mirror, the Frenchman in the mind” – this is a never-ending balancing act that sometimes brings him to the edge of calamity. Added to the glimpse of himself in the mirror, which is the main leitmotif for the story, there is the view from outside. In 1960s France, this means permanent discrimination. For example, in the school playground when his fellow pupils, whose fathers were fighting in the Algerian war, make him the clear enemy, although Miské isn’t Algerian. Or on the street when his grandmother’s friend asks whether he would prefer to do his military service in France or in Mauritania… he must constantly decide and his loyalty to the one or other country is put to the test.

There are no fewer demands made of him when he is fifteen and travelling for the first time to his father’s homeland. Now, he is supposed to be a devout Muslim and champion of slavery because during the early 1980s in Mauritania this is still common practice. “That’s all I needed, now I must also play the part of the villain, the oppressor or the slave-driver” – in this scene, Karim is depicted as an astronaut and feels as if he were on a different planet.

After his parents’ divorce, Karim’s mother is the fixed point. Yet, she is no real anchor. Due to her status as the ex-wife of a diplomat, she cultivates excellent relations to Enver Hoxha in Albania, and in 1972 for a while she takes her son to the heartland of the dubious ruler. The ardent feminist and Communist plans to write a book about this. However, for her son with his ultra-fine sensitivity for lies and contradictions, in this context there is only one realization again: I don’t belong here. I will not feel at home with Communism nor any other ideology.

At first, Miské finds refuge in the “Holy Trinity of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” – Patti Smith, Johnny Rotten, Desmond Dekker, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix give his “rage a colour”. Then comes the discovery: Hannah Arendt’s concept of the Jew as pariah, Sartre and the theory of the Other’s gaze which first constitutes self-awareness, provide answers to questions that are to preoccupy Karim Miské for a lifetime.

Many years later, ARTE commission him to make a documentary film series “Jews and Muslims – so near and yet so far!” Once again, the focus is on who defines their image and self-image. This project is “neither kosher, nor halal”, but “mission fucking impossible” which nonetheless provides Miské with numerous accolades.

Meanwhile, the 53-year-old seems to have his own identity conflict under control. While in “Unbelonging” the tone is mainly furious and self-ironic, in his graphic novel – less adaptation than an ongoing development of the original novel – the author achieves a conciliatory conclusion: if I don’t belong anywhere (“Unbelonging”), then I must form my own sense of home. S’appartenir or “Belonging-to-Oneself” is therefore logical and consistent. Miské has found his place as a writer, and others have acknowledged this place since his debut novel.

By Katja Petrovic

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

Karim Miské/ Antoine Silvestri

N’appartenir

Editions Viviane Hamy, Paris 2016

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 24 April 2017.

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