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Calixthe Beyala: Le Petit prince de Belleville (Loukoum: the “Little Prince” of Belleville)

This book caused something of a scandal, not because of its content but because Beyala was accused, in 1996, of having plagiarised Howard Buten’s When I Was Five I Killed Myself, a book which had far more success in its French translation than in its English original. She lost the case and did not appeal. I have not read Buten’s book so I cannot compare the two.

This is the story of a Malian immigrant family living in Paris, seen through the eyes of a young boy, Loukoum. He finds himself torn between the African habits of his family and his adaptation to French culture. He seems to have two mothers – M’am who is his biological mother and Soumana who is the mother of his two sisters. In other words, his father practices polygamy and, indeed, seems to have other women, one of whom he gets pregnant. The matter is made more complicated when he finds out that M’am is not his biological mother and then even more complicated still when his real biological mother turns up. He spends some time with his biological mother, who is a prostitute and is pushed by her pimp to get back to work and get rid of the kid.

He falls for a little white girl, called Lolita. While her parents are not too enthusiastic, she willingly accepts him though they are separated when he is caught fondling her. Loukoum’s family’s relatives come in and out, women are treated badly (and this is more or less taken for granted), his father loses his job for having cheated on his family allowance and everyone struggles to live in France while remaining Malian. Unlike in the Buten book, he is not thrown into a mental institution for fondling Lolita but he does more or less give up school and works at selling bracelets which he makes himself. In short, life is complicated, particularly for Africans, but life goes on and that is the clearly expressed moral at the end of the book.

Publishing history

First published 1992 by Albin Michel
First published in English 1995 by Heinemann
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager