A lifetime of deception

What happens when you lie about who you are to circumvent being unfairly sidelined?

A business interview (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A business interview
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Karine Tuil’s astonishing fictional saga, The Age of Reinvention, makes you understand the relentless agony of being left out in the cold simply because of who you are.
The now 40-year-old Samir Tahar, whose life unravels before our eyes, emigrated to France from Tunisia with his Muslim parents during the 1960s. Samir somehow managed to leap over the enormous obstacles placed before him and finished law school with the highest honors and an impeccable record. When he graduated, he sent his résumé to the top 50 law firms of France and waited for the phone to ring. Nothing happened, and he realized he needed to take the matter into his own hands.
He removed the last two letters from his first name and became “Sam Tahar,” and was hired soon afterwards by Pierre Levy, who was impressed with the sharpness of the young man who stood before him.
But Levy still wanted to reassure himself that Sam was part of the clan. So he slyly asked him if “Sam” stood for “Samuel,” and when Samir nodded, a lifetime of deceptions and lies began that skyrocketed him to the pinnacle of success.
He married a Jewish woman who was extremely wealthy, the daughter of one of his top clients. He relocated to Manhattan where he headed a large office of attorneys.
Everyone recognized his drive and ambition and provocative intelligence.
Two beautiful children soon followed and he embraced his new Jewish identity with the same sneaky cleverness that had allowed him to cut corners elsewhere. He was unstoppable.
Samir was particularly adept at pushing away unpleasant thoughts. Particularly those about his beloved mother back in France, whom he rarely called and who knew nothing about his present life. He callously remembered his dead father as a man who would return home from work with “his cheap shirt stinking with yellow halos in the armpits, stinking up every room he entered with the acrid stench of sweat – an odor he associated with poverty.”
He had to try a little harder to suppress memories of his two best friends from law school back in the 1980s in Paris: Samuel Baron and his gentile girlfriend Nina Roche. The three of them had been inseparable until Samir slept with Nina while Samuel was burying his parents after they died tragically in a car accident.
It was Samuel Baron’s Jewish identity that Samir stole and repackaged as he climbed higher and higher among New York City’s elite. He convinced both his wife and her parents that he was an only child – an orphan, and a Jew of North African descent.
His wife’s parents were suspicious of his sketchy origins but wary of hurting their daughter, who was madly in love with him. So they welcomed him into their family and mostly kept their reservations about him to themselves.
Samir had always been able to seduce others; there was something about him that was spellbinding. Nina Roche had remained with Samuel Baron after Samir fled but had thought about him for decades after their brief liaison. So had Samuel Baron, who was now a frustrated writer, and a man who seemed to equate his own suffering with some kind of moral purity.
Tuil deliciously describes for us Samuel and Nina’s initial attraction to Samir, explaining, “How could you not be won over by this slightly mocking student who could tell you about his childhood in the poorest part of London or in a dilapidated ghetto, then his adolescence in a tiny attic room and his return to a seedy public housing project, with a flair for the sordid details that could move you to tears and, five minutes later, talk about a meeting between [Soviet Union leader Mikhail] Gorbachev and [French president François] Mitterrand as if he had been there.”
Tuil describes her fully fleshed-out characters with an explosive and original narrative style. Her sentences are often triple loaded with adjectives, sometimes listed in a row with slashes placed between them. The result is the creation of a building tension that allows us to feel their inner chaos. In addition, she often places seemingly obscure footnotes on the bottom of a page that refer to an incidental character in the book and describes them briefly for us. These descriptions are usually depressing tales of lives interrupted by tragic events that have thrown somebody completely off course. They mirror the life of her central character, Samir, whose own life is spinning dangerously out of control.
Samir is the breakthrough character here; we find ourselves wrapped up in the tangled intricacies of his reinvention.
We are rooting for him even as we witness his many deceptions. We are forced to ask ourselves if we would be tempted to do what he did in order to get what he wanted. We understand his frustration and a certain righteousness in his protests that the world is a cruel and deeply unfair place.
We watch him inflated by power and money and fame, but we see his unhappiness too. His past is catching up with him. He worries about his mother, and still can’t put Nina out of his mind. He feels strangled by a lack of freedom he has trouble defining. There are voids that luxury and comfort can’t fill. When thinking about his wife we can hear his confusion.
He admires her accomplishments and graceful self-control, but beneath his lavish praise, we sense his elementary distaste for her and hear echoes of anti-Semitic sentiment as well.
Tuil writes: “There was an aura about her, a halo floating over her head. No one had ever made her feel out of place.
Up on the rostrum. In the first row. In the foreground of a photograph. And, quite naturally, without posing or making any special effort, she was in all of those places.”
When he reunites with Nina for a passionate affair, he feels relaxed in a way he never does with his wife. He eats the foods his mother used to prepare for him and listens unselfconsciously to Arabic music while they make love. Tuil describes his intimacy with Nina as “little things, but perhaps identity is made up of such scattered, insignificant, inexplicable fragments.”
Nina wants more from him than he can offer her, but he keeps her hanging on, hoping for some sort of shift.
Tuil has written nine novels. This enticing one has been nominated for the top literary awards in France and deservedly so. Tuil, the daughter of North African Jewish parents who brought her to France at 17, remembers her parents’ self-consciousness and their feelings of inferiority as they struggled to assimilate in France.
She brings that acute sensitivity to Samir, an unforgettably flawed character who reminds us what it feels like to be unfairly sidelined.