The complete review‘s Review:
Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Koran is a dramatic monologue, but it reads readily like a dialogue-heavy novella. The story is told by Moïse, a Jewish boy growing up in Paris in the 1960s. He lives with his father, a fairly unsuccessful attorney; his mother abandoned them when Moïse was a baby. The person who becomes the real parent in his life, the one looking out for him and teaching him the lessons of life, is the neighbourhood grocer, Monsieur Ibrahim.
The story begins when Moïse is eleven. The first thing he recounts is how he breaks his piggy-bank in order to pay for the services of a prostitute. It’s part of the process of becoming a man (if wildly premature), but the more important step comes at about the same time, as he gets to know Monsieur Ibrahim better.
His father doesn’t give him much money, and so to stretch what cash he does get his hands on Moïse regularly filches stuff from the grocers. Monsieur Ibrahim knows, but instead of confronting him eventually advises him how he might better makes his francs last (basically by substituting cheaper goods for Dad’s wine, coffee, and food). Moïse goes shopping every day (his father won’t front him more money) and slowly a relationship develops between the boy and the ever-smiling grocer. Monsieur Ibrahim always has some good advice — smiling, for one: a cheap way of winning people over (though Moïse’s dad, for one, proves largely immune).
Monsieur Ibrahim is known as “l’Arabe de la rue”, the local Arab, but he’s not, in fact, an Arab: he’s from the Golden Crescent (Turkish, probably, or perhaps Persian). He is a Muslim, but he’s not averse to drinking some alcohol; in fact, he is a Sufi. The one book he relies on is the Koran, but his wisdom tends to be of the very worldly sort.
Religion is treated largely as unknowable in this story. Moïse doesn’t understand much behind it (when Monsieur Ibrahim first says he is a Sufi, Moïse thinks it must be some disease). He barely understands his own background: when he asks his father what it means that they are Jewish his father replies:
Être juif, ce simplement avoir de la mémoire. Une mauvaise mémoire. (Being Jewish, that’s simply having a memory. A bad memory.)
Only much later does Moïse learn what his father means by that, and what weighed down on him so much (yes, it’s the predictable bad memory — and tellingly it’s Monsieur Ibrahim that explains it to him, not his father).
On one trip that Moïse makes with Monsieur Ibrahim the grocer blindfolds the boy, and has him identify different houses of worship they enter by their smell. This is how Schmitt treats religions here, the differences among them entirely superficial. It is also the philosophy that allows for the ultimate transformation: the Jewish boy who eventually take Monsieur Ibrahim’s place and become the man known as “l’Arabe de la rue”. Labels and dogma (religious and otherwise) don’t matter, humanity does: this is the lesson the boy learns from the grocer, and which he puts into practise in the best way he knows how, by following in his master’s footsteps.
Moïse is eventually abandoned by his father, and while his mother does return (after a fashion), it is Monsieur Ibrahim who fills the void and sees to it that the boy manages, never imposing himself too much, yet always seeing to it that what must be done gets done. Monsieur Ibrahim also expands Moïse’s horizons, first on the local street, then showing him Paris, then taking him to Normandy, and eventually driving with him through Europe, to his homeland. A bit too conveniently, Monsieur Ibrahim accompanies Moïse through what amount to rites of passage but doesn’t linger. Lessons learned, Moïse is soon left entirely to his own devices (though these are all, in fact, Monsieur Ibrahim’s wise devices).
The tale is an unlikely and, in large part, too simplistic one, but it’s an appealing story, and Schmitt presents many of the small scenes and encounters very well. The boy’s voice, in particular, is entirely convincing, and if Monsieur Ibrahim is a bit too good to be true he’s still a winning figure. The moralizing is kept nicely off-key too.
Treacly, but with a surprising amount of charm.
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