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Sami Tchak : Place des Fêtes

I had a bit of a problem translating the title. It should be very straightforward as the words are not difficult. However it is not immediately clear what it means. Firstly, it clearly refers to a station on the Paris metro , where a key scene in this book takes place.

It seems that, for our unnamed narrator, life has a place for parties, the literal translation of Place des Fêtes, and, as he delicately puts it, a place for shit, i.e. life is often shit. The German and Spanish translators (there is no English translation) dodged the issue entirely and both came up with the title Shit life. There is a rationale for this. The book is divided up into chapters and each chapter starts with Putain de. Putain is the normal French word for whore. When used on its own it means something like Oh Shit or Bloody hell. When used adjectivally, it means shit or bloody awful such as shit life. The book is divided into chapters and every one starts with the words putain de. There are about fifty,starting with shit lives and shit people born over there and carrying colourfully on.

As mentioned, our hero is unnamed. His parents were born over there, i.e. in an unnamed African country, presumably Togo. The village was poor so they came to France, intending to do well and returning as successes. It did not happen. The father wants to die or, at least be buried over there and has been saving up to have his body shipped there when he dies, being realistic enough to know he cannot plan to get there just before his death. The mother accepts that she will die and be buried in France. The father has this idea that Africa is some sort of paradise, though he eagerly left it because of the poverty.

Our narrator has been unable to find a job. His two younger sisters have been able to find jobs – as prostitutes in the Netherlands. They are apparently very attractive so much so that our narrator had sex with one of them when younger – details given later. All three children were born in France and have no desire whatsoever to return to Africa. However the narrator says France is where he was born but it is not his homeland.

The father is determined that everything that has not worked for them in France is because of racism. His son disagrees. For example, the father maintains that the reason that his son and other Africans have not got decent jobs is because of racism. The son points out that it is because Africans tend to get qualifications in the humanities – literature and the like – instead of in skills needed in the workplace such as computers or statistics.

The father maintains that Africans are discriminated against because of their skin colour when it comes to housing. Our narrator at first disagrees and then says if he were a letting agent, he would be reluctant to let to Africans as they play loud music in the middle of the night, cook smelly dishes and damage the property.

The father maintains that Africans are honest and, if they turn to thievery, it is because they have been led astray by Arabs (Shit Arabs is one of the chapters). Indeed, the father does not like either Arabs or Jews and there is a shit chapter for each.

Tchak continues in this way, using a racy French slang, full of obscenities, disagreeing with his father about many things but also showing up his own shit life and the shit life of other African immigrants. He does not hold back on his own sex life, which has included sex with his sister and with his (female) cousin but also details of his parents’ sex life. The episode in the eponymous Place des Fêtes metro station (there has been an accident and trains have been temporarily cancelled so everyone has left except for our then teenage narrator and his mother) has his mother telling him some details of her sex life before she came to France and met her future husband. She is seemingly an attractive woman and is still propositioned. We continue with his messy sex life, his cousin’s messy sex life and the messy sex life of the cousin of his friend, known only as the Malian.

He also continues with his somewhat controversial views. He condemns those neighbourhoods where Africans predominate as they are messy, with drug dealers and prostitutes, dirty kids pissing in the streets and rubbish everywhere. He is even more critical of illegal aliens, who swamp churches and mosques, causing damage, and he mocks the celebrities who seem to support them. He says that the National Front, who are very anti-immigrant, have a point.

I cannot say that this was an enjoyable book but certainly interesting to have the point of view of the son of immigrants who feels he is neither French nor from over there, who disagrees with his parents, particularly his unhappy father, on most things and seems not averse to much we would consider unacceptable, such as incest.

Reading books like this, I do wonder what the family of the author thinks, whether the story is true or, at least based on fact, or entirely fictitious. At least in this case, if it is partially autobiographical, his parents would not have seen it as both die, the father getting his wish of dying in Africa.

Publishing history

First published in 2001 by Gallimard
No English translation
First published in German as Scheiß Leben in 2004 by Zebu
Translated by Uta Goridis und Nicole Gabriel
First published in Spanish as ¡Puta vida! in 2003 by El Cobre
Translated by Gema Moral Bartolomé