Momo by Emile Ajar

I loved this book so much I made my husband read it, which was no trial for him as he is still quoting it.

I first heard about Momo and its author, Emile Ajar (a pen name of Romain Gary’s), in Litlove’s book blog. The storyline intrigued me: Momo, an Arab boy, is raised by an elderly Jewish woman who is a former prostitute and holocaust survivor. Living in a French suburb inhabited by prostitutes and drug dealers, many of them immigrants from Arab and African countries, Madame Rosa fosters the children of prostitutes. They hide their children in homes like hers because their occupation nullifies their parental rights. The novel was written in the mid 70’s and takes place in 1970.

What makes Momo funny, poignant and singular is the first person narrative voice of the boy. I just flipped through the novel looking for something to quote, and there is something fabulous on every page. It’s just that good. Here’s the opening paragraph:

The first thing I have to tell you is that we lived on the seventh-floor walk-up, so you can take my word for it that Madame Rosa, with all the pounds she had to lug around her, had more than her share of daily life with all its sorrows and cares. She said so too, whenever she wasn’t complaining about something else, because to make matters worse she was Jewish. Her health wasn’t so good either, and I can tell you right now that if ever a woman deserved an elevator it was Madame Rosa.

This is such a skilful use of first person. Ajar writes from within Momo’s perspective, and through Momo’s malapropisms and interpretations of what he’s undoubtedly overheard and observed, Ajar brings the broader environment to life richly, slyly, wisely.

This voice is the literary forerunner of the child narrator in Room by Emma Donoghue. I often don’t like first person narration because it’s either gratuitous (3rd person with the word “I” instead of he/she) or it’s purposeless. This is a case of the perfect narrator magnificently executed. My only complaint about Momo is that it’s out of print. (I got it from the library.) Who is going to re-print it? Someone must!

I also want to tell you something about the author. Romain Gary was a French author who was getting flack from lit critics claiming that he was passe. His solution? He began to write under the pseudonym Emile Ajar. Under this name, his work garnered great praise, but there was pressure for him to reveal who he was. So he leaked that Emile Ajar was the pen name of his cousin’s son. The critics fell all over this, proclaiming the younger relative far better than the elder. He left a letter revealing all to be opened posthumously. To top it off, Gary received the Prix Goncourt, a French literary prize to be awarded only once during a writer’s lifetime. He was awarded it a 2nd time as Emile Ajar!

And well-deserved, I say.

14 thoughts on “Momo by Emile Ajar

  1. Hi,

    Litlove pointed your review to me and I’m so happy her entry about Romain Gary made you try him.

    I LOVE Romain Gary, he’s my favourite writer and I’m so angry that his work isn’t more translated into English. I highly recommend Promise at Dawn. And The Roots of Heaven. And White Dog.

    There are several posts about Gary on my blog, just in case…

    1. Thanks so much, Emma, for reading here and for the recommendations. I agree with you. I’d like to buy Momo so I can study it (the copy I read came from the library), and I’m going to put those books on my reading list.

  2. This will be my next Romain Gary/Emile Ajar. He is so good, isn’t he? I think you would really enjoy his memoir also, it’s called Promise at Dawn. A fascinating look at the power of parenting influence.

  3. Peter T.

    Thanks for recommending this book at your reading at the Palmerston Library. I laughed on many occassions and smiled some of the statements in the book.

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