When I turned the final page of this book and closed the cover, I said aloud to my empty kitchen, “Wow. That was an incredible book.” I can see why Random House decided to translate it from the original French for the American market. The fictional narrator, Blaise Fortune, also known as Koumaïl, tells his story – as a war refugee in the Caucasus – and grips the reader’s heart.
The memoir-like novel is a tale of abject poverty and homelessness, but never asks the reader to feel pity, or to feel sorry for Koumaïl and his mother-figure Gloria. Gloria and Koumaïl have been running away from war for as long as he can remember. They sacrifice food and energy for one another’s well-being, while always hanging on to their dreams, trying as hard as they can not to “catch a despair.” Gloria always puts a positive spin on their trials. She tells Koumaïl, “There’s nothing wrong with making up stories to make life more bearable.” She takes their often shocking situations and turns them into little blessings for Koumaïl‘s sake. For example, the first time we see them move to a new place, she instructs Koumaïl to dig a hole behind their shack (made of a corrugated tin roof, next to a garbage dumping ground):
“Finally, she shows me a spot behind one of the walls, where I’m supposed to dig a hole.It gives me a funny feeling to dig our toilet. In the Complex, we shared toilets with the other people on the floor, but here we’ll have our own private corner. Gloria says that we’re becoming bourgeouis. I don’t understand that word, but she laughs so hard that I laugh with her, right by the edge of our future poop hole.”Bondoux illustrates the cruelty of war through other characters like Koumaïl’s friend Fatima, a young girl who has refused to open her eyes since she saw her father shot on his prayer mat, or Stambek, whose “mind had stayed in the rubble” when a bomb struck their house. The prevailing theme of the novel is one of hope – regardless of who surrounds you and how bad the situation is – hope and family sustain you as you “always walk straight ahead toward new horizons.”
“What’s it for?” I ask.
“Well, it will be to do our business!” she answers with a wink.
The book is beautifully told, a magnificent insight into the life of a nomadic refugee, and later, a lonely child immigrant far from home.