The Scent of Marie-Claire is one of the latest publications from the AUC Press and Habib Selmi’s first work to be translated to English. Selmi is a Tunisian-born novelist and a professor of Arab literature living in Paris. The novel tells the story of the passionate relationship between an Arab man, Mahfouth, and Marie-Claire, a French woman who works at the post office.
They meet at a café in Paris and a spark ignites between their bodies and souls: Mahfouth, a Tunisian professor living in Paris, and Marie-Claire, a free-spirited–almost bohemian–young woman open to various cultures due to her upbringing and frequent travels. After a few months of café meetings, they move in together–and both their cultures and backgrounds collide.
Despite his PhD in Arab literature and his long life in Paris, Mahfouth still carries the imprints of the raw North African villager whose contact with the opposite sex had largely been confined to brothels. Marie-Claire, on the other hand, is an open-minded European young woman who takes on the mission of slowly introducing her exotic man to a “civilized”–by her standards–relationship. Despite being in constant battle with his past, Mahfouth falls deeply in love with his French partner.
Throughout the relationship, Mahfouth battles his demons to live up to the standards set by his French woman. The relationship lasts for years and goes through all the ups and downs–but ends catastrophically after the passion fades.
Not only is it a battle of sexes, it is a battle of cultures and different childhoods. Mahfouth lacked parental guidance growing up, and in most cases he comes across as an introvert who reverts to his memories whenever the present becomes inconvenient or unbearable. This is reflected by his weak social skills and, at times, his selfishness.
The novel is very descriptive and colorful, introducing the reader into a man’s love life–which is rarely depicted in either books or drama. Of course, that entails a number of sexual nuances and fantasies, which were overwhelming in places and somewhat repulsive in others.
Selmi succeeds in expressing his main character’s confusion, but for most of the novel, time frames are vague and ambiguous. For example, we don’t know the ages of the main characters, nor do we know when exactly they lived or how long their relationship lasted. These important details would have helped complete the narrative for the reader.
That the reader knows from the very beginning that the relationship is doomed to fail, meanwhile, spoils some of the enjoyment and anticipation. What’s more, the author waits until the end of the second chapter before disclosing the name of his main character, Mahfouth, creating a layer of initial–and unnecessary–confusion.
Like any translated work, you can’t help but wonder how certain details had been depicted in the original text. In any case, Fadwa el-Qassem did a good job translating this Arabic-language novel into English.
The Scent of Marie-Claire is available at AUC bookstores.