It’s somehow difficult to categorize Al-Habib Al-Salmy’s novel “Rawayeh Marie-Claire (The Scents of Marie-Claire), a remarkably intimate portrait of the rise and fall of a relationship between a Tunisian man and a French woman, under a particular literary genre.
Contrary to what some reviews claim, the East-West cultural clash the novel touches upon is not its main theme; instead, “Marie-Claire is a quiet, pensive story that skilfully captures the universal essence of the relationship between a man and a woman. “Marie-Claire is the only Tunisian entry in the 2009 International Prize of Arabic Fiction shortlist, the winner of which will be announced on March 16 in Dubai.
Egyptian or Arabic novels of “Marie-Claire’s ilk are quite rare. Last year, Bahaa Taher’s “Wahet Al-Ghroub (Sunset Oasis) and Sonallah Ibrahim’s “Al-A’mama wal-Kobua’a (The Turban and the Hat) treaded similar grounds; both depicting a love story between an Arabic man and a foreign lady. Yet, in both works, the love story wasn’t the central subject but a backdrop for different political and social themes.
“I see her eating her bread slices. She puts a light layer of butter then another heavier layer of cherry, apricots, grapes, or strawberry jam. She dips the bread into the hot café au lait then she raises it to her lips; the lips I never stopped desiring from the time I first knew them till the time she left me, reads the novel.
Readers regard Al-Salmy’s French female protagonist Marie-Claire from the point of view of Mahfouz, a Tunisian immigrant in Paris. Mahfouz, who has a PhD in Arabic Literature, works as a receptionist in a hotel and occasionally lectures in French universities. Marie-Claire is about 30 years old, works in a post office and loves to sniff letters when no one is looking.
The pair first meets in a coffee shop, hitting it off almost instantly. A few months later, they move in together.
Marie-Claire begins to change Mahfouz. His sexual confidence is boosted somehow: “I can’t believe that this beautiful creature is all mine, he confesses. He muses on the tiniest of objects she possess; her flowers, garments and ornaments, which Al-Salmy describes carefully and beautifully.
They both enjoy the early stage of the relationship as they gradually discover each other. She learns that sex is important to Mahfouz while he starts to understand her gregarious nature, her fondness of dining outdoors and watching movies. But boredom eventually creeps in and shortly afterwards, the relationship starts to crumble.
“Marie-Claire is a character-driven novel. All events of the story are produced from the fluctuation of their relationship. Using flashbacks to chronicle the childhood of each, Al-Salmy takes his time to solidly build his characters, giving them the space to grow and reveal themselves as the novel progresses. Al-Salmy’s meticulous pace and careful characterization is the most fitting method in telling a story about a doomed relationship, and Al-Salmy does it so expertly.
Its only downside, however, is that simply; there isn’t much happening in the novel.
In retrospect, there are major disparities between Mahfouz and Marie-Claire. He is not outgoing, she is. She enjoys well-planned vacations, he is fairly indifferent. This contrast is part of their mutual attraction. Yet Marie-Claire seems to be too perfect to believe.
Marie-Claire knows exactly what she wants and she knows how to get it.
Not once does she regret a mistake she may have made or even rethink a questionable action she may have committed. Perhaps, according to Al-Salmy, this is how a Tunisian man regards his French girlfriend, as a perfect creature. But still, what kind of woman at her age, in such a strong long-lasting relationship, never brings up the issue of marriage and children or even hint at it? It is not that she foresees an end to this relationship, nor does she wish it to end. Is this an oversight, or is Al-Salmy implying something else entirely about his heroine?
There is a universal side to the relationship as well. He knows her, in and out, and he sometimes needs to escape this tediousness. Bit by bit, Mahfouz grows tired of his girlfriend’s habits, which he used to relish at first. The element of unpredictability, of mystery and the elation of discovery, soon dies.
Mahfouz knows specifically when she wants to make love, when she’s hesitant, and when she’s completely abstaining. At this point in a relationship, Mahfouz and Marie-Claire don’t communicate their desires through words. Words are too obvious, too straight-forward. They choose to do it with subtle gestures, with gentle touches or lack thereof.
To a great extent, “Marie-Claire is about a man feeling foreign, too foreign, to understand his girlfriend, if it’s at all possible for any man to understand his woman, and this is where the brilliance of the novel lies.
This relationship is so close to the point of ennui; of realizing that the only road is downhill, of being too distant and helpless to rescue it.