A week in books

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The Independent Culture
In December 1995, two school exercise books filled with a childish scrawl arrived on the desk of Olivier Orban, editorial director at the French publishers Plon. The manuscript came via a lawyer and purported to be the journal of a teenager called "Chimo". He presented himself as a 19-year-old beur (second-generation French Arab) who lived on a sink estate in the Paris outer suburbs: the rundown banlieue at the end of the Metro lines.

Published last spring, Lila Dit Ca titillated and scandalised literary Paris with its tale of a 16-year-old streetwise blonde. This "angel with the mouth of a whore" spins erotic fantasies for her young swain as an escape from the "chaos and misery" of their surroundings. The book proved to be a runaway bestseller; foreign rights went for a vast sum, and David Watson's fine translation will appear from Fourth Estate next week as Lila Says (pounds 9.99).

Now, the French love bookish mysteries and hoaxes; and they have plenty of previous when it comes to concocting them. In 1975, the novelist Romain Gary won the Prix Goncourt under the mask of "Emile Ajar". And when it comes to anonymous literary porn, remember that the authorship of The Story of O fuelled salon chatter for decades. (It was in fact written by Dominique Aury, a distinguished - and far from masochistic - publisher who attended board meeetings at Gallimard well into her eighties).

Fans of the French blend of erotica and exotica that dates back at least to Flaubert's Salammbo will enjoy Lila Says. Yet it sounds to me about as genuine as a 25 franc note. A touch of Carmen; a hint of La Traviata, not to mention all those 19th-century tarts called Lola: mix those flavours with French curiosity about the mysterious East in their own backyard and a smidgeon of the social conscience evident in Mathieu Kassovitz's film La Haine (a much more credible work), and you have the recipe.

Behind this cunning package, you can almost smell the Gitanes of some middle-aged Left Bank intellectual and taste his late-night inspirational Scotch (Chivas Regal or Black Label, if I know the type). In a typically improbable allusion, "Chimo" even nods to his own cultural pedigree. He talks of the short journey taken by the slumming bourgeois who come to the suburbs for cheap sex and stolen goods as "this trip to the Orient, this dip into the secret world of the harem". If the author truly turns out to be a badly-educated young beur from the high-rise wilderness, I shall happily treat the team at Plon to the best couscous royale in town.

Intrigued readers may reply: so what? All talented writers mimic distant voices and imagine lives far from their own. True, but the chances of a real kid with a passion for the written word emerging from the semi- ghettoes into the Parisian limelight remain as slim as ever. For more than a decade, one in seven French voters has backed Europe's most successful Fascist party, the Front National. Governments have responded with a string of clampdowns and round-ups intended to bully the genuine Chimos into silence. Whatever Lila and her potes may want to say, the French state and its flics still answer with a curt "shut up and get back in your box".

Boyd Tonkin

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