In this swift and engrossing translation from the original Italian, Divorce Islamic Style can be seen for exactly what it is: a literary moment in the hands of a writer whose degrees in both philosophy and cultural anthropology interlock our empathy and our ineptness. Amara Lakhous, in fact, knows how to make our exposure to this underbelly feel like nothing less than a treat.
The story (and its dual narrators) is immediately likeable, both in spite of and because of the rather outlandish set of coincidences that brings the characters together. We have alternating chapters from the eyes of Issa and Sofia, the former of whom isn’t actually who he says he is and the latter of whom wishes she wasn’t. Issa isn’t a Tunisian immigrant at all, but an Arabic-fluent Italian spy who is working underground for the government to expose terrorist threats. Sofia the Egyptian lives in the same neighborhood of Rome, a veil-wearing, observant housewife to a strict Muslim and with few options to project outward her inherent vivaciousness, constantly waffling between her religious conviction and her desire for autonomy.
Admittedly, such a conflict (particularly in post-9/11 storytelling) risks coming across heavy-handed and obvious, and a Western audience (whether they admit it or not) is always hoping for the woman’s dramatic rejection of a faith that oppresses her. We can’t be blamed for wanting this; it’s the story we know. The bombastic tendencies of our national narrative. Forget faith: even The Little Mermaid (crappy sequels excluded) saw Ariel rejecting her underwater world full of family and friends because of the greater freedom she felt with land legs. If that’s a petty example, then how about 1995’s attempt to remake The Scarlet Letter into a movie where the woman not only doesn’t die, but in the tradition of strong female characters, never remarries, either? In these sorts of maneuvers lies the root of our inability to accept how darn complicated it is that a controversial religion is nonetheless observed by nearly one in seven people on the entire planet.
Divorce Islamic Style sort of gets the jump on us by simply making Sofia an audacious narrator to begin with. What we see isn’t oppression in any shackled-leg sense; Sofia’s character is done the favor of being shown in the park, the cafe, and the grocery store, all the minutiae that grants her personhood like anyone else. In fact, in revealing directly to the reader (in a thoroughly Italian clip) all the problems with Islam, of which she’s fully aware and articulate, she’s empowering the idea that in spite of all this she still firmly believes.
Here’s why I worry about the religious future of my husband. With the life he leads, in which he follows the tiniest details of the dictates of Islam, it’s likely he’ll go to Paradise. I, too, have all the necessary requirements so that I can hope not to end up in Hell. So will we find ourselves together in the other world? The truth is, this scenario doesn’t excite me in the least. In other words, I find no incentives, you see?
Issa, meanwhile, is the structure of the story more than the flavor for me. His role as the backbone is all the more important because the more he zooms around frantically talking with police chiefs and infiltrating Arab cliques in the Little Cairo neighborhood of Rome, the more exposure I as a reader get to the purely cerebral musings on a religion about which I know so much less than I should. Here is Lakhous showing his chops: politics, foreign policy, cultural anthropology, history, and philosophy all portioned in perfect measure. Nothing dwelled on too long, nothing expressed in more words than is necessary. The combination reads like an adventure.
Full disclosure: the book also reads very strongly like a translation, in that there are moments and phrases that stick out at odd angles. Nearly every page, even every paragraph, of Sofia’s narration includes the phrase “And so? So what,” without any readily apparent context. Additionally, the Italian style doesn’t seem to be as strict about its use of dialogue tags; whole pages of conversation might go by without a “he said” or “she asked.” It actually might be that these techniques are left untouched to make the translation a more raw and authentic one, and if so, then the tactic definitely works. All of this in combination with the present-tense, ever-shifting perspective is enough to make me feel that I’m reading something thoroughly European — and why begin a book about 2005 Rome if that’s not precisely what you want?
And so? So what. So it’s a charmed artifact that’s worth every minute of your time. So it’s a female perspective — albeit a fabricated one, since Lakhous is the real hand — on an issue whose very gender stratification makes it an issue. The book is funny, and it allows itself to be. The pace will leave you behind if you’re not careful:
Can you be happy while the world goes to hell? And what about climate change? And the hole in the ozone layer? Forget about it. I once read an article in a magazine that said that coming generations won’t know what snow is. But not to panic, skiing won’t disappear: there will be artificial snow. In short, the future promises nothing good? But don’t be ridiculous!
Alternate title suggestion: Discourse Italian Style. It’s fun to read a book in which the United States plays only a peripheral and incidental role. I, for one, ought to do it more often. It puts things in perspective, to say the least. And so? So what. Read it and you’ll know what I mean.