Le Gone du Chaâba: Wide-eyed innocence from Azouz Begag

A French Algerian's autobiographical novel about growing up in the slums

I was first introduced to Le Gone du Chaâba (The Chaâba Kid / 'The Shantytown Kid') at a time when we were also reading the comparatively dry L'Avare by Moliere for A level French. Each lesson spent with spritely Azouz was a welcome break from the constant stumbling over the dusty vocab of France's answer to Shakespeare, whose clunky double entendre and perplexing sentence structure mostly went over our heads. I enjoyed Le Gone du Chaâba back then, without a doubt, but it took me a while to take it seriously. When we first started the novel, I saw it as no more than an interesting textbook; it needed to be read perfunctorily so that I could pass my exams and go to uni and get a job and live life and become a real person or whatever. If my other classes were anything to go by (Two dire years on Austen for English Lit), as far as I was concerned school-selected literature was designed to be boring (sorry Austen fans), and I expected no more from Azouz Begag. It didn't really strike me at first that the novel existed outside the vacuum of the school curriculum, and therefore could be enjoyed. However I was pleasantly surprised.

Begag's novel is a refreshing slice of beur life written from the perspective of a young, second generation Algerian immigrant. Written in 1986, Begag's first autobiographical bildungsroman is a lighthearted and charming caper that focuses primarily on young Azouz's life within the Chaâba; an islamic, Algerian community in the shantytown outskirts of Lyon. The novel touches upon the sometime painful subjects of religion, poverty and racial identity looking from the outside in. Through Azouz's wide-eyed innocence we explore sensitive topics in a style that permits bathos and an optimism that perhaps Begag may not have gotten away with so seamlessly had he written from an adult perspective. This makes for an honest novel that uses its young protagonist to skilfully tread the line between romanticising Chaâba life and begging the reader for sympathy, settling on a happy medium that hints at, without indulging in, larger political issues in France. 

Algeria, a former French colony, has understandably had a longstanding and tense relationship with France, who, like most colonising western countries, is reticent to take responsibility for the damage it caused, and more pointedly continues to cause to the lands once snatched from their owners. For many years, it has not been uncommon for conservative France to treat its Algerian population as the country's go-to scapegoat for whatever problems suits at the time, and unfortunately it would seem that this situation, though admittedly considerably improved, is still an issue in France now, just as it was when Le Gone first came out. Chuck in the scourge of anti-Islamic feeling being spouted by contemporary right wing politicians (a personal fave of mine is last year's absurdist headline that french muslims in Paris were snatching croissants from children during Ramadan) and it's not hard to see why Begag's novel seems as relevant and meaningful now as ever. These issues are engrained into the lulling narrative of Azouz's formative years, during which he openly strives to be as 'intelligent' as the white French and confesses to not wanting to be an arab. The novel is formed of episodic annecdotes that are strung together by memorable and endearing characterisations, from the prostitutes hanging by the water pump, to Azouz's strict father, and not forgetting, the tenacious Azouz, who stumbles through school and aches to be a good pupil. Le Gone du Chaâba is not solely about race, it is at base(for want of a better description) a coming of age novel that delves into the growing pains of a boy who would grow up to become a prominent political figure, author and advocate for equality in France, but for the time being, prefers to frolic in the bins with his mates... excellent.