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Ali Zamir: Anguille sous Roche (A Girl Called Eel)

Being such a small country, the Comoros has not played much of a role in modern literature. As far as I can tell no Comorian novel has been translated into English. When this novel came out in the summer of 2016, it made something of a stir. It was the first novel of a twenty-seven year old and it was very good. When he was denied a visa to go to France to promote the book, this gained more publicity. (Eventually, he was allowed to enter France.)

The novel is the story of a young woman called Anguille (=Eel). At the beginning of the book, she seems to be drowning but, while struggling, she recounts her life story. She tells it more or less in a stream-of-consciousness form, with limited punctuation and limited use of upper case letters. Her language is colloquial French. Eel (it sounds better in French – Anguille) is not the only person to have a colourful name in this book. When she and her twin sister, Crotale (= rattlesnake) were born, their mother died giving birth to them. As a result they were brought up by their father, whom we only know by his nickname Connaît-Tout (=Know-All). Know-All is a fisherman by trade and a self-educated man. He picks up newspapers and magazines in rubbish bins and reads them. When his wife was pregnant, he picked up a zoological magazine and learned about how animals defend themselves. He was particularly impressed with the defence mechanisms of the eel and rattlesnake, hence the names of his daughters.

The girls have turned out to be different. Crotale hangs out with boys, to her father’s disgust. She is continually berated by him for her behaviour. Anguille, however, is the quiet one and well-behaved. She enjoys watching the fishermen when they come ashore and try to sell their catch. At least that is the impression she tries to give. While her father has his eye on Crotale, disobedient, always coming home late, hanging out with the boys, he assumes that the devoted Anguille is always well-behaved.

She sums herself up in an interesting passage: je ne suis pas là pour faire une leçon d’histoire, je ne veux pas faire partie de ces menteurs-là moi, ce sont des histoires anguilliformes qui m’intéressent, les histoires insolites, celles qui ont l’aspect d’une anguille comme la mienne, ce sont le genre d’histoires que les lecteurs de journaux comme de best-sellers actuels ignorent complètement, les histoires vraiment vraies et bizarrement bizarre, tous ceux qui écrivent ou lisent les histoires qui ne sont pas anguilliformes, je le dis bien, sont loin de la réalité de ce monde [I am not here to give a history lesson, I do not want to be part of those liars, what interests me are the eel-shaped stories, the unusual stories, those that are like an eel like mine, these are the sort of stories that readers of newspapers and current best-sellers are completely unaware of, the truly true and strangely strange stories, all those who write or read stories which are not eel-shaped, I’m telling you, are far from the reality of this world.] Apart from showing that punctuation (and the use of upper-case letters) are not part of this novel, this is really our first indication that Anguille is somewhat different.

Her difference seems to be fairly conventional. She is secretly in love with one of her father’s fellow-fishermen, Vorace (= Voracious). Her father has no idea but, we suspect, Vorace might be aware of her feelings. Eventually, while her father is out fishing, she sees him walking by (Crotale is still asleep in bed) and invites him up. Very soon, they are an item. We gradually learn that, while Crotale might be the one who turns up late to school, hangs out with boys and comes home late, it is Anguille who is more inclined to bad behaviour. Crotale likes boys but only platonically. Indeed, several boys who want to have a sexual relationship with her are rebuffed. Meanwhile, her sister is having sex with Vorace, drinking wine (Comoros is primarily a Muslim country), smoking heavily and completely missing school. When she becomes pregnant, her father finds out about her pregnancy and she finds out that Vorace is a serial womaniser, things are clearly going to go badly.

What makes this novel is not the plot (except for learning at the beginning that she is drowning and wondering what will happen to her), as it is quite straightforward. However, Zamir’s skill at seeing life from Anguille’s point of view and giving us a lively account of that point of view does make this novel an excellent one. Her language is full of colourful local expressions. She has a detached view of life early on but, once she meets Vorace, passion takes over, as she becomes the bad daughter, though her father is not yet aware of this. Crotale seems to drift through her life, enjoying herself, but often out walking or just lying down in the park with her friends. Anguille, however, is a very determined young woman, knowing what she wants, even if those around her do not. Once she sets her heart on Vorace and the attraction of the smoking/drinking/sexual life-style he offers, that is what she is going to have.

For a first novel from a country that does not have a strong literary tradition, this really is an excellent novel. It is easy to see why his publishers not only wanted to publish the book but also to bring him to France to promote it. Does this mean that we are likely to see more novels from Comoros or, at least, more novels from Zamir? I hope so but, I suspect, not in English.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Le Tripode
First English translation in 2019 by Jacaranda