4 out of 4 stars
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A word of warning: if you’re looking for a straightforward sci-fi mystery/romance, this is definitely NOT the book for you. Unless you are into hardcore metafiction, best keep away because that’s exactly what Mois Benarroch’s The Expelled is. A masterpiece of the genre, an intricate box-in-a-box literary concoction, and in each box there is a jack – something entirely unexpected, outrageous, illogical or downright absurd – and each box has its own music, pace and fragrance. Yes, fragrance. And all these fragrances put together make up a perfume that could be described as follows:
THE TOP NOTES, the ones that reach the nose first, are the opening story – the narrator meets a woman that looks exactly like his wife, and is in fact the same person, but twenty five years younger. These top notes are sharp, bold and aggressive bordering on cheap and tacky – like a disenchanted spouse dressing up as a prostitute to make a point. The effect is strident, offensive, sleazy and yet intriguing.
THE MIDDLE NOTES are the central story – a bus is hijacked by terrorists, a passenger is shot and the bus becomes a universe in itself in which society is divided into two classes: the front people, the oppressing majority, and the back people, the oppressed and complacent minority. The pace is fast and furious; the notes are screeching, dissonant, messianic, and absurd, a combination of frankincense, myrrh, toilet odors, blood, sweat and insanity.
THE BASE NOTES, the final fragrance that appears once the top notes have completely vanished, emerge not at the end, as one would expect (wouldn’t one?), but right in the middle of the book, under the form of a third box, or perhaps I should say a third Sephardic nesting doll – the story found in a notebook, that explains the metaphor of at least one of the other two stories. It smells like epiphany mixed with Moroccan bean soup.
And the main character of the book, the one wearing this strange perfume, is the whimsical metafictional text, which tells a story in itself, and contains clues to the apparent plotlines or to what hasn’t been said. The music–related “stage directions”, for instance, apart from setting the mood, are tell-tale songs that shed light on the unsaid. Although the reader’s attention is drawn in a confessional style to the storytelling/making process and the supposedly objective reality outside it throughout the entire book, this apparent openness can be deceptive and paradoxical, matching the upside-down world of the stories. Masterfully using an arsenal of literary techniques, from multiple narrators merging various first and third-person perspectives to a head-spinning mise-en-abîme, Mois Benarroch shatters the “I” and scatters it to the four winds, challenging the readers and himself to put the pieces back together.
To paraphrase his own words, The Expelled is a story about love, discrimination, indifference, fiction and reality, or reality that merges with fiction. A love-hate dichotomy between the “I” and the Others that persists even through the meta-text. If I had to explain what lies at the core of it all, what links all the stories together, here’s how I’d put it:
So you’ve managed to be part of the group, to fit in with the dominant majority to the point of losing yourself in the process. You forgot who you are, where you came from, what your past is. It’s good to be part of a dominant group so you’re doing what you’re expected to do, what the OTHERS expect you to do, not what YOU want to do. Because you don’t really know what you want anymore. But suddenly you hit a wall. You open your eyes and see that the standards conveyed as necessary for being accepted or successful are irrational and absurd. Now what?
That being said, notwithstanding the fact that the English translation is far from being excellent, and there are a few typos here and there, for the excellence of the work itself I rate this book 4 out of 4 stars. It’s a roller coaster read that keeps you turning the pages and, even though eventually the roller coaster turns into a Ferris wheel and the pace slows down, in the end it still leaves you dizzy. Thank you, Mois Benarroch, for one hell of a ride.
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