Wednesday, October 1, 2008

La vie devant soi

Thanks to the vast and innumerable resources of Columbia University's Reid Hall program in Paris, I got to go to the theatre for free today! What I saw was an adaptation of "La vie devant soi," a novel by Romain Gary.

Romain Gary, a Lithuanian Jew who fled the Nazis with his family to Nice, France, was both writer and WWII aviator. He wrote "La vie devant soi" under a pseudonym, thus becoming the only person to win the prestigious literary award "Prix Goncourt" twice.

"La vie devant soi" deals with themes difficult to digest on a Thursday night after a dinner of wholesome ratatouille, but it was well-acted and extremely imaginative. It questions the nature of memory: what becomes of human beings when they are consumed by memory? When, like the title, life-- la vie-- stands before the self-- le soi? In the story, an old woman-- Madame Rosa-- is consumed by memories of Auschwitz, while being put in the compromising position of taking care of a preteen Arab boy called "Momo" of ambiguous age and nationality, put on her doorstep at the age of 4.

The play thus deals with questions of race and belonging, nationality and religion, and the differences between them. Momo's hereditary father returns, and Madame Rosa, ill and slightly delirious, is thus confronted with a dilemma: return someone she has grown to love to someone far less willing to love, or lie to his father and keep Momo for herself. Momo himself has a dilemma before him: tell Madame Rosa the truth about her illness, or pretend all is well and allow her to enjoy the last few years of her life?

Two hours long and excrutiatingly emotional, "La vie devant soi" is an exercise of courage to whoever manages to watch it. Beautifully acted, torturous, brutal... yet creative. Dream-scenes accompany every major act, and the play juxtaposes soliloquy and a somewhat more distant voiceover remarkably well. It is just imaginative enough to avoid lavishness. ("La vie devant soi" had me at the dream-scenes, though: I'm such a sucker for dreams!)

Also fascinating was the use of symbolism in the play; as you can see in the poster, the "valise"-- suitcase-- is an obvious symbol of change and memory, of "packing" your memories into one item, of condensing a lifetime of experience into something worn-down and insufficient. There was also the symbol of the Menorah, lit and put out twice during the play. Madame Rosa was a true Jewish grandmotherly figure-- the stage looked just like home, embarassing floral prints, mumus, Eastern European pots and pans and all. Ach! Now that is home.

Truly this was an appropriate play to attend before the dawning of Yom Kippur. Which reminds me: Happy New Year, everyone! Eat some apples and honey!

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