Poetics of Madness and Alienation in a Francophone Canadian Novel
J’ai connu guerre et folie, et à un souffle de la mort, je choisirais la guerre, si je pouvais encore choisir, sans l’ombre d’un doute, sans aucune hesitation.Abla Farhoud (Omar in Le Fou d’Omar, 158)
[I have known both war and mental illness. On the brink of death, if I were to choose again, I would choose war, without the shadow of a doubt, without any hesitation]. 1
Le Fou d’Omar 2 [Omar’s Madman] is the third novel written by the Lebanese-Canadian author Abla Farhoud (1945-), eminent Francophone poet, playwright, and novelist. It was a recipient of the prestigious Québec-based Prix du roman Francophone [francophone novel prize] in 2006, shortly after it saw the day. This catapulted Farhoud to the foreground of the literary scene of Québécois writers of other origins.
The theme of mental illness is peripherally present through the character of Abdallah in Farhoud’s first novel. It is also encountered in Quand le vautour danse [When the Vulture dances], Farhoud’s 1997 play where the vulture, madness, hits the brother of the protagonist, Suzanne, and leads the latter to suicide. However, it is not until her third novel, Le Fou d’Omar, that Farhoud explores madness and self-dispossession in a full-fledged proportion, enmeshing it with the thematic of the ravages of war.
Written from the first person point of view, in a French infused with English sentences (especially when uttering profanities), as well as highly colloquial Québécois expressions, with the occasional Arabic (transliterated) idioms, Le Fou d’Omar is a hauntingly vibrant and compelling multiple account of the agonies of mental illness and its impact on the downfall of a Moslem family who escaped war torn Lebanon of the seventies and eighties, settling in a suburb of Montréal. Fraternal, filial, parental love, sibling rivalry, death wishes, failure, and an immense burden of responsibility are some of the sub-themes that permeate this riveting novel.
Le Fou d’Omaris composed of six dramatic monologues titled livres [books]. Those monologues consist of personal diaries written by four characters: Radwan (Books Two and Six), his brother Rawi (Book Three), their father Omar (Book Five), and the family’s Montréal neighbor (Books One and Four), Lucien Laflamme, a philanthropic fellow in his late fifties, who has read the Koran.
The poetics of madness and alienation in the narratives can be deconstructed into the following thematic clusters: social isolation due to the stigma attached to mental illness (“the unnamable” disease), a sense of failure and shame on the part of the father and his mentally disabled son (Radwan), a sense of paralysis of the will and of the body on the part of Radwan, the ragged violence of the psychotic episodes; their impact as devastating as that of war, and the burden of Radwan’s chronic illness on his siblings (and his father), reducing every one of them to a mere subsidiary of their brother Radwan.
The novel opens with Lucien Laflamme’s narrative. He is commenting on his Moslem Lebanese neighbors’ family life, one that at once fascinates and intrigues him. “There is something wrong” with the family, he remarks (14): after fifteen years of being their neighbor, he has yet to know them, a situation due to a “frustrating” and excessive privacy on their part. He has come to notice, especially after the mother’s death, an extraordinarily strong bond between father and son. Laflamme also recounts a mysterious incident that happened when the mother was still alive, when he saw the son, Radwan, whom he describes as otherwise gentle and delicate (17), suddenly going on a rampage in the garden where he tore everything up, then ran onto the streets while his parents were desperately calling out to him in vain. This is the first foreshadowing the reader has of the manic-depressive disorder which Radwan, the adored son of Omar, endured.
Throughout the novel, there is a pervasive sense that Radwan’s disabling condition has invaded every iota of space—physical and psychological—available to his siblings. Nothing else existed but this reality. This is best expressed in the diary of Rawi, the younger brother, who moved to another country to escape his family predicament. His is a compelling record of the life of six people “agglutinated in misery (88),” a family who, in times of crisis, became “a talking mill,” endlessly repeating the same words (89); a tribal unit which subsumes individualism; a family invaded by a singular, sole thought and concern championed by the father: that of saving at all costs Radwan, whose “misfortune” was the misfortune of the tribe and who, at the onset of the illness, stopped being referred to by name. Instead, he was referred to by the personal and possessive pronouns, he or him (89).
Having lost his name, Radwan suddenly “occupied the entire space” (120). In times of remission, when the family barely had time to recover, the “hurricane” would strike again, most unexpectedly, each time more violently. This is a reality evoked by the father as well when he repeatedly expresses the thought that the entire family had become “slaves to the rhythm imposed by the illness” (154). Likewise, the brother Rawi tells of his own hijacked childhood, a childhood punctuated by Radwan’s condition, the preoccupation with which persisted at all time. In his own words, summing up the habitual activities of the family:
Quand nous n’étions pas en train de parler de lui, nous étions en train de courir les papiers des médecins, de téléphoner à la police ou de le chercher à travers la ville. Et nous revenions tout raconter: Comment il avait refusé de nous accompagner, comment il était habillé, ce qu’il avait fait et dit […]. C’était sans fin. Comme si nos propres vies n’avaient plus aucune importance [When we were not talking about him [Radwan], we were busy running around to physicians, phoning the police, or looking for him across town. And we came back to tell everything: how he had refused to follow us, how he was dressed, what he had said and done […]. It was endless. As if our own lives no longer mattered at all] 90
This “metastasis” of space, so to speak, is rightly attributed by Rawi to the Arabic cultural tribal values, wherein “in family mythology,” the notion of individuality becomes absent, subsumed as it is by the collectivity, making it a sin for anyone to be happy when a family member is ailing, or making it impossible to claim your right to remain an individual (89). Rawi admits hating both father and brother. He is particularly resentful of this father of six who failed to love anyone else but Radwan, utterly neglecting his other off-springs, in a manner that sidelined their talents, preoccupations, aspirations, achievements, and their very existence.
When speaking of the genesis of her third novel, Abla Farhoud asserts that instead of the topical theme (elaborated by the renowned French Canadian psychoanalyst Guy Corneau3) of the absent father-figure resulting in an utterly failed son, she wanted to come up with an all too present father and arrive at the same result, namely the failed, deprived son. This inspiration led Farhoud to imagine a man (Radwan) waking up some morning totally alone, after having lived with his now widowed father whom he suddenly finds dead in bed.4
In the opening scene of his monologue, when he finds his father dead in his sleep, Radwan is surrounded by his five salvaged dogs which, in his utter helplessness, he gradually comes to call his “beloved children” (175). The very first, fragmented sentence of Radwan’s first book (Book Two) is in English. It summarizes at once his disjointed personality and his broken life: “Father. My father. My father is. My father is dead” (21). This is repeated throughout, with variations, almost always in English, a fact that can perhaps be explained by the need to register the reality of the father’s death with the attention and distance afforded by a non-native language. In Radwan’s words:
My father is dead and I’m not (30)
My father is dead and I’m alive. Almost alive (33)
My father is dead and I can’t walk anymore. I won’t kill myself. I won’t (47)
My father is dead. Dead. Dead. And I’m dying (62).
Examining the above statements, one notes an increasing sense of breakdown conveyed by the mere repetition of “my father is dead” juxtaposed with gradually more compelling signs of incapacitation (difficulty walking, suicidal thoughts, paralysis). What transpires here is Radwan’s inability to make a single move to bury his widowed father—he has been living alone with his father, all his siblings having left home—though he repeatedly points out that Islam requires washing the body and burial within twenty-four hours. The mounting urgency of burial, accompanied with paralysis, the incapacity to act, and the lack of practical sense are perhaps offshoots of Radwan’s condition. After a great deal of agonizing, he calls his brother Rawi (alias Pierre Luc Duranceau), the writer, then he hangs up the receiver when his brother answers. Radwan’s paralysis permeates this account of intense fear, of frozen capacity for action, and of a suffocated soul. Thus, as Radwan continues to watch his father’s “smooth face,” he is glued to the deathbed, frozen. In his words:
Je n’arrive pas à enlever mes yeux, sortir, fermer la porte […]. Des mots. des mots. Il faut des gestes.
[I am unable to remove my eyes, to go out, to close the door […]. Words. Words. I need gestures] 68.
At the end of the sixth book, his second monologue, he implores the help of his dogs:
Prendre mon père dans mon bras. Le mener à. Aidez-moi. Aidez-moi. Bamako, Ego, Bacha, Abel, Solo. Aidez-moi. Il me reste vous.
[To take my father in my arms. To bring him to. Help me. Help me. Bamako, Ego, Bacha, Abel, Solo. Help me. You are the ones remaining to me] 175.
Intense, excruciating fear, one that marks his entire life, seems in this moment of crisis, to have further contributed to the above-mentioned paralysis. Radwan describes himself as “a crazy scared child (78)” and invokes his father’s help, begging him to extract that lump of fear from his stomach (75), so that he may accomplish his burial duty. Though Radwan’s first monologue ends with his having given up burying his father, in the second monologue, at the end, he finally makes it as far as the garden where he drags the body and shovels snow on it, to the alarm and utter disbelief of his neighbor Lucien Laflamme who happens to be sitting on his balcony. Radwan’s brother Rawi will come to the rescue and take over from the neighbor who meanwhile has extended a helping, compassionate hand.
In the epigraph to this essay, itself a quote from the diary of Omar (Radwan’s father), psychotic episodes are overtly likened to the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990): For fifteen years, every time the war subsided, like Radwan’s illness, it would suddenly flare anew, and resume the devastation, relentlessly so. However, unlike war raids during which an intense sense of solidarity flourishes between people facing a common danger, with psychotic attacks a family is in total solitude, burdened with shame, isolated from the entire community, neighbors and strangers alike, by “that mass of shadow that one can neither disclose nor name” (159). The family moreover, is alienated from the dispossessed member, whose psychotic attacks are an adversary with an ever-changing face. In the words of Omar:
Chaque fois que la folie frappe, c’est la première fois. Comme chaque membre de ma famille, j’ai été catapulté, en vingt ans, dans quarante pays inconnus, où rien ne ressemblait à rien […], où aucun geste n’avait de rapport avec l’autre.
[Every time madness strikes, it is like the first time. As for every member of my family, in twenty years, I was catapulted to forty different unknown countries, where nothing resembled anything […], where not a single gesture had any connection with any other gesture] 159.
Omar, the father, evokes the 15 years of the Lebanese Civil War and states its similarities with his son’s periods of remission: barely enough time to open the door, to think of going out on the streets when it strikes again, unannounced. But whereas at the end of war there are losers and winners (or just losers as in the Lebanese war), in the case of acute psychotic episodes, there is no end to the combat. “How can you escape madness,” asks Omar (158). You can escape war, and that is what happened to the family when they went to Canada from Lebanon, but madness is a lasting prison, one that lasted more than fifteen years. Only death delivers you from it all. Omar comes to desire death for himself. The death of his wife, Hoda, whom Omar tenderly loved—Hoda la magnifique [Hoda the magnificient], he calls her—not only exacerbates his concern over his son’s mental illness, but it is also perceived as a betrayal.
Radwan’s psychotic episodes acted as energy sappers for Omar, the only caretaker for his son after he became widowed and everyone else left the nest. They convey anunbearable weight of persistently deceived hope. Says Omar, in the first sentence of his diary:
Je suis mort étouffé. Etouffé par trop d’amour, trop d’espoir déçu
[I have died choked. Choked by too much love, too much betrayed hope] 151.
Referring to his torment over his mentally ill son, Omar asserts having lost his carefree nature, one which used to qualify the quintessence of his former (before Radwan’s mental illness) self. Instead of the impetuous, impulsive lad he used to be, he has become obsessive and obsessed, haunted by a single thought:
Avec le temps je suis devenu une pensée unique à circuit fermé
[With time, I had become one single thought in a closed circuit] 161.
Omar’s diary is a portrayal of the agony of an intensely devoted father over his ailing son, expressed in terms more painfully vivid than the previous monologues. Omar makes a sweeping statement where he renounces God; where he guiltily discloses his awareness of the negligence with which he treated his other children who had to carry the burden of their brother’s lot, and where he expresses his intense sense of failure as a father (167):
Tous les jours, qu’il soit à la maison ou à l’hôpital ou perdu quelque part dans la ville, je vivais l’échec. L’échec de ma vie.
[Everyday, whether he was at home, at the hospital, or lost somewhere in town, I was living failure. The failure of my life] 164.
The sense of failure felt by Omar is also a main theme in Radwan’s book. In his monologues, Radwan expatiates on the nature of mental illness and recounts the first episode he experienced when he was fourteen years of age. His torment is expressed in concise, but moving passages that inform the reader and enlighten him about the added social stigma attached to mental illness. The horror, we learn, is one associated with the continuous va-et-vient, “between the internal and the external, between the external and the internal (75),” from hospital to home with “a head heavy with shame (75)” back to the hospital, escorted by two policemen, like a common criminal.
In his torment, Radwan will come to question his very humanity. Openly so when he asks outright, several times, whether a “madman is still a man (64),” or when he asserts at the end of his last monologue that he is “a madman, not a man (172),” or in a more subtle linguistic switch at the end of his second and last monologue when he invokes the help of his “beloved sons” (his five dogs), calling them “bons chiens” [good dogs], followed by the singular form bon chien [good dog], which he repeats, obviously referring to himself (175). A sense self-hate will hence mar the awareness of this antihero who describes himself in those terms:
I am a coward. I’m a loser. I’m a frog (63).5
Tous mes efforts n’ont jamais servi à rien. Je suis né fils. Et je mourrai fils. Possédé et dépossédé
[All my efforts were always in vain. I was born son. And I will die son. Possessed and dispossessed] (67).
“Coward, loser, possessed, dispossessed, dog, frog,” a lexical field rich with themes of self-deprecation and a sense of futility. Radwan lives his madness lucidly, aware of its minute tenets, like an enemy you know well but whom you cannot defeat. His life is besieged. It has holes, just “like the buildings of Beirut during the war” (54). Fear permeates the very fabric of his life: “I breathe fear,” he says in one of his diatribes (78).
After being immersed in the four narratives, at the end of the novel, the sympathetic reader may ponder: who is the madman after all in this tale of family misfortune: Radwan who suffered violent psychotic episodes that left him self-dispossessed and his environment shattered, or else his father Omar who torturously loved this first-born of his, passionately, obsessively, and to the detriment of all his other children? The French title of the novel, Le Fou d’Omar, is ambiguous insofar as it can be understood in two ways: Omar-the-madman (the father) or Omar’s Madman (Radwan).
1 All translations are mine in square brackets, following the French original. This novel has not yet been translated into English.
2 Le Fou D’Omar. Montréal: vlb Editeur, 2005. A play adaptation was created in 2008 in Paris, where it premiered (Théâtre Atalante).
3 Guy Corneau is a celebrated Canadian psychoanalyst whose book, Père manquant, fils manqué (Absent Fathers, Lost Sons: The Search for Masculine Identity, New York: Random House, 1991) is alluded to by Farhoud in reference to her protagonist Radwan, during her interview with Simard. In Radwan’s case, the father figure is not absent; it is, on the contrary, omnipresent; yet, the outcome is equally amiss.
4 Mathieu Simard, “Abla Farhoud: Le Fou d’Omar ou être à l’origine de sa propre vie,”Le Libraire 28 (May-June 2005): 1-16, 6.
5 The first sentence is in English in the original text.
About the Author
F. Elizabeth Dahab is Professor of Comparative Literature in the Department of Comparative World Literature and Classics at California State University, Long Beach. She has given numerous talks and published a significant number of research articles in her fields of specialization, namely literatures of exile, as well as a book on exilic Canadian/Québécois literature of Arabic provenance, titled Voices of Exile in Contemporary Canadian Francophone Literature. She is also a poet (French/English), though her poetry is largely unpublished.