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Maria Maïlat: La cuisse de Kafka [Kafka’s Thigh]

This is a semi-autobiographical novel about a woman who was born and bred in Romania, got into trouble with the Romanian authorities and left for France and who has taken to writing in French, rather than Romanian.

Her name is Mina Baïlar and she starts off by telling us the tale of Ana and the Great Architect. He learns the same day that he has been commissioned to build a great cathedral and that his wife is pregnant. However, things do not go well with the cathedral and parts of it fall down. He clearly needs a great sacrifice. He persuades Ana that, just for a bit of fun, he will have the masons build a wall around her. She refuses but she is seized and constrained while the wall is built. She is left there and her screams can be heard by the locals for many years afterwards. Mina identifies with Ana, particularly in her relationships with men, with a feeling of being trapped.

Mina is born in Transylvania of mixed heritage. Her grandmother was Jewish and she clearly has some Armenian blood and possibly Gypsy as well. Her family does not get on well with the locals, who despise them. We are not of their world, says her father. As a child she often goes off wandering, though her parents tell her it is dangerous. She herself feels as though she came from somewhere else.

In those days, Romanian girls often became gymnasts and Mina is no exception, doing fairly well at it, though her teacher at one time gives her the ultimate insult, as far as he is concerned, by calling her her a poetess. Her second aim after being a gymnast, is to be a writer. She gets into further trouble at school, When asked by her teacher what she wanted to do later in life, she answered Be free. It was not the right answer.

When she was eighteen, like the author, she went to Iaşi to study at university. While there she reads forbidden books, such as the Marquis de Sade. She still feels that she does not fit in and clearly some of the other students do not, as there are a lot of suicides. We know, from later, that she starts writing but gets into rouble with the authorities. She is hauled in by the Securitate who tell her Your signature will never again appear on the cover of a book. You are finished! Screwed! You no longer exist.

She decides to emigrate. She has a tourist passport and leaves the country with only a few things, a few dollars and a manuscript concealed in her clothes. At Orly Airport, Paris, she is met by Alkolius. He is critical of immigrants, who breed too much, he says, takes Mina to a hostel and has sex with her.

The book now becomes the story of an exile, struggling to cope with a foreign country. She gets advice, such as she should write in Romanian but she wants to write in French or she should write a book damning the Romanian dictatorship but that is not what she wants to write. She struggles with everything from pay phones to all the things she sees in the supermarkets that she has never seen before. She gets jobs as a dog walker and babysitter. She gets the usual stereotypes: people think Romanian is a Slavonic language and that Transylvania is full of vampires.

One of the many problems of life as an exile is finding somewhere to live. She goes to the Centre for Jewish Immigrants and they give her temporary accommodation. They later offer her a more permanent residence in a horrible, run-down block, well away from the centre of Paris. She declines. The problem about a permanent residence is not just somewhere to sleep but it will help with her application for asylum if she can show she has a network of friends. The precarious nature of her status is shown when, at the Office for Protection of Refugees, where she has to apply for asylum, a Kurdish man kills himself when told that he is being returned to Turkey. His body is found, covered with torture scars from the Turks.

Various Romanians do try and help, including one she calls the Grande Dame who also wants to to use her for propaganda, telling her that the novel is dead and she should write non-fiction. But she does not want to write propaganda – the right to write was the only reason for my exile.

All she really needs is an address and she manages to find a surprising one – that of playwright Eugène Ionesco, who signs a document saying that she lives there. The other good news is that her novel is accepted for publication.

While we are following her travails as an exile – a topic she ruminates on in some detail – we are also getting scenes from her life in Romania. We meet Rosa Rosen, an Auschwitz survivor. We follow the sad story of her grandfather who was a village official and had to arrest two boys for chicken stealing. He was kind to them but they were handed over the the police. One of them was Nicolae Ceaușescu and he has never forgotten and never forgiven. There is Mme Tobias who introduced her to French literature.

Back in Paris, her novel is doing fairly well but her publisher still wants to use her for anti-Romanian propaganda, which she does not want, so she finally gets a job to ensure steady income and the ability to find somewhere to live on her own. Her job is at a centre for troubled girls. The supervisor tells her that they are there to look after them till they are old enough to be sent to adult prison. She warns her that her predecessor is still in hospital. Inevitably Mina finds sympathy with them as many have had a hard time – sexual abuse, for example – and she tries to help them.

Mina generally shows herself sympathetic to the down-and-out, for example there are the tramps. (Note that she uses the word clochard, the normal French word for tramp; nowadays the term SDF = sans domicile fixe (= of no fixed abode, i.e. what we might call homeless) is used. She is shocked that the French seem no more sympathetic than the Romanians to people who have fallen on hard times.

I have read quite a few books about exile – indeed, including one or two Romanian books. Exiles can generally divided into voluntary exiles, such as James Joyce or the US writers of the Lost generation and the involuntary ones, those who leave or are made to leave for political reasons. Mina comes into the latter category, as she was more or less pushed out of the country and had to leave if she wished to continue writing, which she did. Unlike other involuntary exiles, while she does remember her past and partially misses her country, she does not indulge in a great deal of sentimentality about her roots, as such exiles often do. Not only does she not desperately try to cling onto her language, she is eager to switch to French. Similarly, when called on to take a political stance on the politics and government of Romania, she is reluctant to do so. That does not mean that she does not struggle with exile and what it involves. We have seen above such issues as housing and the treatment of others who have fallen on hard times are just two concerns. She gives us, on several occasions, her thoughts on her exile, her writing, her language, her country and her contact with her past.This is definitely an open, honest book on exile. Yes, there is inevitably a bit of self-pity but, above all, it is the story of a woman who is trying to find her place in a new environment and gives the matter a lot of thought, which she shares with us.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Fayard
No English translation