“The Life Before Us” (“Madame Rosa”) by Romain Gary— A Profoundly Beautiful Novel

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Gary, Romain. “The Life Before Us” (“Madame Rosa”). New Directions, 1983.

A Profoundly Beautiful Novel

Amos Lassen

One of the most beautiful books I have ever read is Romain Gary’s (writing as Emile Ajar) “The Life Before Us”. I remember that when I lived in Israel, the entire country seemed to be reading the book in the Hebrew translation from the original French. I always wondered why there had been no English translation available only to learn that I was wrong and there is. Basically it is the story of an orphaned Arab boy, Momo, and his devotion to Madame Rosa, a dying 68 year old survivor of Auschwitz and former prostitute.

Momo, a 14 year old Algerian orphan, is one of the many whores’ children that come to live at Madame Rosa’s boardinghouse in Paris. He has lived there for as long as he can recall. When the check that pays his rent stops coming and Madame Rosa is too sick to climb the stairs anymore, he is determined to find a way to support her in any way that he can. Madame Rosa has been making her living by taking care of the children who come to her and even though their beliefs, religions and ages separate them, Momo and Madame are quite attached to each other and depend on the love and companionship that they share.

The characters in this novel are captivating— shopkeepers, furniture movers, doctors and retirees living their lives in mid-20th century Paris. They form a colorful backdrop to the storyline, never becoming a distraction, yet serving important roles in the narrative. Momo, street-tough, candid and wise beyond his years tells the story and there is nothing about his life that seems happy but he remains funny and uplifting throughout the story.

Here is a book that touches both the mind and the heart and does so profoundly. The story grabs the reader on the first page and holds it all the way through the ending…and even afterwards. First this is a love story between an unlikely couple who come together by circumstance and their friendship and love outlasts hardships galore. This is a look at the underside of society where those who are shunned and/or marginalized by polite society come together to help each other survive. The story is built around Momo’s question—is it possible to live without someone to love”. Gary also gives a political side to his novel by dealing with vice laws, the treatment of the elderly and euthanasia.

Romain Gary’s writing is gorgeous with every word carefully chosen and not a word is wasted. This is a brilliant book–intelligent, poignant, dramatic, truthful, evocative, enormously entertaining and very dark and funny. Gary managed to convey powerful messages– life, racism, suffering, discrimination and equally powerful human connection and love. Momo’s intuitive understanding of these issues, without all the euphemistic, intellectual and politicizing, orients the readers on the bare essence of human sufferings and triumphs.

The book was originally published in France and in French as “La Vie Devant Soi,” by Emile Ajar, Romain Gary’s pseudonym. It is a prize winning novel that deals with life, death and love with emphasis on everyday truths. Momo becomes a spokesman for euthanasia as he, at the young age of just fourteen, agonizes over and yet deals with the coming death of Madame Rosa. There are the themes of living with (or without) love and dying with (or without) dignity. When Momo says, “Old people may not be what they used to be, but they’re worth as much as anyone else. They have feelings same as you and me, and sometimes, they suffer even more because they’re too old to defend themselves. Their worst enemy is Nature, which can be a very ugly customer and kills them by slow torture….”, my heart broke. I am of that age now and perhaps I was a bit wounded because I am old just like Madame Rosa was.

There is a bit of the author’ own life here. Romain Gary came to fame as a French writer and as an American screenwriter. He was born a Lithuanian Jew but his family moved to France where he is well known in France and has received a number of French literary awards and honors. His story here is about the relationship or friendship between a young Arab boy and a much older and dying Jewish woman. The latter is confined to her apartment. There is a warmth and charm that most can appreciate.

Gary tells the story of Madame Rosa from the viewpoint of little “Momo”. As I read, I laughed and cried simultaneously. It is amazing how Gary could get this out of the same sentence that inspires and depresses at the same time. This is a novel about life and what it means to be human. It is profoundly touching, disturbing, sad, funny, and honest. It will be difficult to see life in the same way when the read ends and it too bad that Romain Gary is not alive to write more books like this. I originally read the book in its Hebrew translation (“Kol HaHaim Lifanav”) and then in French (“La Vie devant Soi”) and then just this week in English and the story is so universal that the translations are wonderful.

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