By Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam
Translated by Ruth Diver
The difference between a sect and the society in which its members seek refuge can be seen as a matter of scale. Successful cults make exclusive and very particular a recognizable pattern involving rules, systems, norms and, perhaps most importantly, a very confident leader. Although they herald ultimate freedom, cults above all offer gentle restraint. They tend to have particularly rigid ideas about sex and gender – ideas that inevitably reflect the pathologies of the cult leader. It doesn’t matter whether a sect demands celibacy (Peoples Temple), desexualization (Heaven’s Gate), or endemic sexual exploitation of women (Nxivm), the stories of those involved usually revolve around revealing the guru as the supreme predator. : it will take your money, of course, but it is really there for your body, if not for your life.
If we are to believe the young Farah, the free narrator of Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam’s “Arcadia”, none of this applies to life at Liberty House, the fictional town at the center of the novel, where live about thirty distinguished burnouts in the hills of eastern France, led by a benevolent hedonist and funded by wealthy old ladies.
“Arcadia” is Bayamack-Tam’s twelfth novel, but it is his first to be published in English, translated here by Ruth Diver. The book, which won the Inter Book Prize in France in 2019, appears designed for extreme relevance: in addition to its celebration of off-grid community life, the novel presides over hot topics that include gender identity, queer and intersex; consent and legal rape; and the African migrant crisis in Europe.
When we meet Farah, a 6 year old girl arrives at Liberty House. Her parents joined the town in the hope of compensating for “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” which is part of her fragile mother’s “intolerance to everything”. Farah is enchanted by her new surroundings, an area of Edenic calm where the locals give up their birth names, walk around naked and “live in nostalgia for heaven before the fall”.
At the head of this phalanstery is Arcady, a voluptuary of about fifty years of Syrian origin who gives sermons on animal rights, talks constantly about the apocalypse and encourages everyone there to have sex with everyone, especially him. Farah’s “natural tendency to revere” finds its first and final object in Arcady, “worthy of the worship I have rendered her immediately and irrevocably a thousand times over.” In her early teens, Farah’s doubts mostly extend to her own identity: at 14, she feels too tall, bony, and hairy – not just ugly but distinctly non-feminine. Listening to Farah agonize over her desire, Arcady discusses the possibility of becoming her lover, perhaps once she turns 15. Farah is ecstatic.
The first 90 pages of this capricious novel serve several purposes: to present the world of Liberty House; establish the sharp and chatty voice of our child narrator; and raising questions of scam, reliability, how seriously we are supposed to take it all. Whether Farah is an enigma is meant to be the point – much of “Arcadia” follows the character’s quest for self-definition. We learn about Farah’s likes (“beautiful phrases”, beauty, loving Arcady) and his dislikes (geese, old body), but despite the outlines of a hero’s eclectic journey to individuality, Farah fails to emerge. as more than an irreverent set of aesthetic attitudes and tics. The reader waits in vain for the novel to approach its putative themes – including power differences and the confused nature of desire – with the same ruthless eye it turns on aging flesh.
This crude quality is particularly ill-suited to the novel’s description of what the narrator calls his “gender problem”. At age 15, Farah suffered from Rokitansky syndrome, resulting in the absence of a uterus and vaginal canal; over time, Farah’s body takes on a more masculine appearance and two small testicles begin to sprout. Initially a source of despair, Farah’s lack of a clearly gendered presentation opens up the possibility: Perhaps rather than “the girl with the fresh cheeks” our narrator will be “the girl on an anatomical journey with no destination”. Yet, for much of “Arcadia,” Farah is tormented by a fundamental question: “Who am I? “
Liberty House offers no answer; Farah’s half-hearted poll of her female members about what it means to them to be a woman delivers real results: work, gift, sacrifice. Arcady presents Farah with vaginal dilators, and for an “eternal summer” they have what Farah insists on a series of sexual encounters that are not only consensual but transcendent.
While the book’s subversions are entertaining at times, and its odd ideas ring true (including one on the relationship between images and memory), “Arcadia” is never as fun for the reader as it clearly was. Bayamack-Tam. A critical subplot about the arrival of an Eritrean migrant named Angosom is one of the weak spots in the story. Although he triggers Farah’s disillusionment with the sect’s exclusivity, we don’t learn anything about Angosom except his name and what a distraught Farah prefers to call him: “Black Venus,” ” our noble savage ”,“ my dark object of desire ”. This is the most glaring example of characters rendered in cartoon form. Bayamack-Tam plays on a range of effects and comedic ideas, without picking up the first or successfully opening the second.
Because Farah’s relationship to power and influence remains murky, the character’s eventual identity as “neither male nor female,” but a transitional entity without borders has the slippery feel of many others depicted in ” Arcadia ”. That is to say, it lacks the rough parts, the frictions, the rocky play of human and worldly rhythms which, cult or not, will always be the stuff of real life.