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French Fiction Fridays #18

The last French Fiction Fridays of the season deals with the theme of growing pains. Young author Faïza Guène draws portraits of characters afraid of the ticking clock and social constraints keeping them from growing up as who they aspire to become. Lola Lafon's fairy-like gymnast Nadia Comaneci is petrified at the idea of having to grow up and destroying the myth she has become. Time-flying phobics, be warned!

Real Men Don't Cry(Un homme, ça ne pleure pas) by Faïza GuènePublisher: Fayard

The padre spends his retirement tinkering with the junk he has collected in the backyard. The mother misses the old country and thinks her children are too skinny, no matter how much food she piles on the dining table. Dounia, the eldest daughter, is an active feminist. Mina, the youngest, blushes at shower gel commercials. And the brother? Mourad is stuck between his desire for freedom and his worst nightmare: that he might end up a graying, overweight bachelor who drowns his sorrows in fried food. Books are his only refuge.

After her high-drama departure and a ten-year absence, Dounia resurfaces one day, hair cut short, and gets involved in grassroots politics, ready to take on the world. Mourad is still at loose ends when, to make matters worse, he gets his first teaching assignment at a school in the Paris suburbs, far from Nice where his family lives. He is put up in style by his cousin Miloud, a gigolo who gets high on raï, which only further deepens Mourad’s personal crisis. Everything conspires to tear him away from his beloved books. The only thing he knows for sure is what the padre taught him: real men don’t cry.

Faïza Guène was eighteen when she was discovered in a creative writing workshop, and her first novel, Kiffe kiffe demain (Hachette, 2004; in English, Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow, trans. Sarah Adams, Mariner Books, 2006) was a huge success, translated into over thirty languages. No one-book wonder, after publishing three more novels, she has earned her credentials as one of France’s most original voices.

Read excerpt in English translated by Jane Kuntz

Read excerpt in French

The Little Communist Who Never Smiled(La Petite Communiste qui ne souriait jamais) by Lola LafonPublisher: Actes Sud

Lola Lafon’s fourth novel, The Little Communist Who Never Smiled, tells the story of an elfin child who, in her day, astonished the entire planet, by the unforgettable perfection and unprecedented daring of the moves her young gymnast’s body traced in mid-air, from the Olympic Games to the World Championships. Despite herself, she became the showpiece of a nation: Romania, which in the 1980s was trying to convince the Western world of its uniquely anti-Soviet stance in the heart of the Balkans. She was the symbol of an Eastern Europe of another day and age. She was a pop-sports idol in the West and the “youngest Communist heroine” in the East. She was a fairy, a dragonfly, the child of a country previously famous only for its dictator and Dracula, both of whom she would dethrone. She was Nadia Comaneci, a true object of fantasy the world over. For the first time, the little girls of capitalist countries dreamed of looking like one of their Eastern counterparts. But one day, the wee fairy started growing up. Grieving sports commentators bemoaned the scandalous biological transformation of their idol, whose developing body frustrated an obscure, desperate desire for eternal childhood. And although the medals kept coming, the myth began to die.

Far from mere biography, The Little Communist Who Never Smiled traces the personal arc of this fairy divided against herself, whose fall from grace was so unforgiving. And in so doing, it interrogates the capacity of the world we live in—not only to create little girls desperate to remain little girls, under threat of losing their magic; but also to keep so many women in a state of arrested development, by projecting seductiveness and flawlessness as their singular social destiny.        

Writer and musician Lola Lafon was born in 1975. She is involved in several anarchist, antifascist, and feminist collectives. Her first three novels were published by Flammarion: in 2003, Une fièvre impossible à négocier [A Fever Impossible to Negotiate], which won the Prix Atout Lire; in 2007, De ça je me console [I Console Myself with This]; and in 2011, Nous sommes les oiseaux de la tempête qui s’annonce [We are Birds in the Oncoming Storm], which won the Prix Coup de cœur de la 25e heure at the Book Festival in Le Mans and was a finalist for the Prix Marie Claire.

Read excerpt in English translated by Edward Gauvin

Read excerpt in French