The figure of the plucky, upwardly mobile arriviste, as embodied by Samir Tahar in Karine Tuil’s turbo-charged, politically engaged new novel, is a familiar one in 19th-century French literature. From Stendhal’s Julien Sorel to Balzac’s Lucien Chardon and Maupassant’s Georges Duroy, the man living on his wits and looks while searching for social leverage is everywhere. These antiheroes were perhaps emblematic of French Revolutionary truculence: two fingers perpetually held up at an ancien régime of editors and critics. So it is with Samir, though his milieu is not the 1830s literary scene of Illusions perdues but the post-9/11 cultural kaleidoscope of French society.
The book’s plot is deceptively simple: stolen identity followed by inevitable retribution. Born of Tunisian Muslim parents, Samir meets the Jewish Samuel and his girlfriend, Nina, at law school. When Samir and Nina become involved, Samuel blackmails Nina with a suicide attempt. She returns to Samuel, while Samir steals Samuel’s