Caroline Clifford (essay date October 1994)

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SOURCE: Clifford, Caroline. “The Music of Multiculturalism in Leïla Sebbar's Le Chinois vert d'Afrique.French Review 68, no. 1 (October 1994): 52-60.

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[In the following essay, Clifford discusses the treatment of “les croisés”—characters who belong to more than one culture—as depicted in Leïla Sebbar's Le Chinois vert d'Afrique.]

Set in the present-day France of the increasing cultural tensions between immigrants and French de vieille souche, of the rising popularity of the Front National, and of a perceived need to defend French cultural purity, Leïla Sebbar's novels give a voice to the Beur children and other croisés growing up between the culture of their parents and that of the country in which they live. Sebbar ultimately affirms these children's right not to choose between cultures, but to incorporate distinct cultural particularities within a new composite identity. In Le Chinois vert d'Afrique (1984), she shows the characters with multiple cultural ties as more autonomous, less conscious of or limited by cultural boundaries, and ultimately more interesting than the characters that exist squarely within the French culture. Twelve-year-old Momo, of Vietnamese/Algerian father and Turkish mother, and fifteen-year-old Myra, of Italian mother and Moroccan father, emerge as strong and independent. On the other hand, the two French police officers, Bonnin and Mercier, are prescribed and limited to the point of being cartoonish because they act only in the strictest accordance with police regulations in their attempts to catch the “little savage,” Momo.

These characters represent two opposing forces at work in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique and the struggle between these forces provides the framework for the novel's narrative structure. Characters with multiple cultural ties, called “les croisés,” constitute the multicultural force, or actant in Mieke Bal's narratological terminology (Bal 26), and characters with ties only to one culture constitute the ethnocentric actant. These two actants work at cross purposes in the novel, the first striving for mobility, cultural pluralism within society and within personal identity, and the second for cultural homogeneity and the eradication of cultural differences. The narration of the struggle between these two actants in Le Chinois vert d'Afrique emphasizes alternance rather than hierarchy of elements, and thus expresses a multicultural theme. In this paper, I will examine the narrative structure of Sebbar's novel primarily by comparing its features to certain musical structures, but with the added theoretical support of Bal's narratology, in order to show how the particular structure of Le Chinois vert d'Afrique expresses a multicultural ideal.

For several reasons, music offers a privileged path to understanding Sebbar's novel. On a thematic level, music plays an important role in the lives of characters on both sides of the cultural divide. Momo plays the flute, Myra the piano, and Jean-Luc and Inspector Laruel have a fascination with opera. On a theoretical level, music lends an aspect of fluidity to the discussion of culture, as Julia Kristeva shows in Etrangers à nous-mêmes, a book which seeks to redefine notions of culture. Finally, the structure of language, upon which narratological concepts are based, is by definition linear and teleological (Yaguello 40), whereas the structure of music allows the superimposition or coexistence of elements within a single space and thus is a fitting tool with which to analyze a narrative with a multicultural ideal.

Etrangers à nous-mêmes provides an excellent starting point for an examination of the relationship between structure and intent in Sebbar's novel. In this book, Kristeva presents images of the foreigner in different time periods and different cultures, from ancient Greece to the European age of...

(The entire section contains 35764 words.)

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