Arts & Culture

Review: Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit

Lucette Lagnado is this year's recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Her family memoir is reviewed by Tamar Yellin who won last year's prize for fiction. Although only established in 2006, the Sami Rohr Prize has established … Read More

By / May 6, 2008

Lucette Lagnado is this year's recipient of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. Her family memoir is reviewed by Tamar Yellin who won last year's prize for fiction. Although only established in 2006, the Sami Rohr Prize has established itself as the pre-eminent prize for Jewish writers not least because it is worth $100,000 for a writer of, in alternating years, Jewish fiction and Jewish non-fiction.

— Dan Friedman, Zeek Associate Editor

Towards the end of Lucette Lagnado's memoir of her family's flight from Cairo to America, she describes the celebration of the Passover seder in her parents' Brooklyn home: the sorting of the rice, the polishing of the silverware, the candlelit search for leaven. Above all comes the retrieval out of the basement, from one of the twenty-six suitcases they brought with them on the boat from Alexandria and which, years later, still remain to be unpacked, of the porcelain dishes, liqueur glasses and tiny spoons with which they taste the haroseth. Yet at the climax of all these preparations, "No matter how loudly we sang, our holiday had become not a celebration of the exodus from Egypt, but the inverse – a longing to return to the place we were supposedly glad to have left."

This is the paradox which sits at the heart of Lagnado's Sami Rohr Prize-winning book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: the paradox of exile. Jews who have left Egypt, who sing praises to God for having brought them out of Egypt, long to return there. The book is prefaced by a quote from Numbers 11:4-6, where the Children of Israel lament the "cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic" that they ate in slavery (and the book is a homage, as much as anything, to the glories of Levantine and Egyptian food). The Lagnado family's exodus is a fall from grace: no redemption, no Promised Land, but for some of its members, an eternal wandering in the desert.

The subversion of the Exodus is of a piece with the subversion of identity which Lagnado painstakingly anatomises. Early on we learn that her father Leon, the dapper-suited boulevardier of the title, is "both an Arab and a Jew." Raised in Cairo, he is an exile twice over, for his family originally hail from Aleppo, and the Jews of Aleppo are "intensely Jewish, intensely Arab." "‘We are Arab, madame,'" he tells Mrs Kirschner, the social worker in charge of their Americanisation. What's more, in the new land in which he reluctantly finds himself, he intends to remain Arab. These paradoxes of exile are as fundamental to Jewish experience as they are to the nature of Jewish identity.

The memoir offers us an insight into the sheer messiness and confusion of forced migration, something which those who have never experienced it simply cannot comprehend. Forbidden to remove money or valuables from Nasser's Egypt, the wealthy Lagnado family spend the weeks before their departure liquidating their assets and turning them into clothes – one of the few items they are allowed to take with them in bulk. Hence the twenty-six suitcases. Leon is measured up for handmade suits (but no more white ones; they will no longer be appropriate where he is going) and his wife Edith for polka-dot summer dresses she will never wear (it is 1963), while six-year-old Lucette (Loulou), the youngest of their four children, acquires numerous pairs of flannel pyjamas she will surely have outgrown in a year or so; but there is no real logic in these preparations. It isn't clear what they intend to do with the yards of Egyptian cotton and rich brocade with which the suitcases are stuffed. Sell them, perhaps? They never do. The suitcases become a liability, a heavy symbol of all they have lost and the weight of regret they carry. Ultimately, they and all their contents are destroyed in a fire.

In the same way, stranded in Paris, that universal transit point for European refugees, the family vacillates over whether to flee to Israel or America, causing much irritation to the agencies who are trying to aid them. Squeezed into a shabby hotel room with their suitcases, subsisting on handouts, they argue with each other, fall ill, miss appointments, lose interest in their appearance and change their minds. Israel seems the obvious destination, but life there for new immigrants is harsh and primitive, opportunities limited, the boys would be drafted and there is the constant threat of war. Three close relatives who relocated there have died in quick succession. It would take a harsh nature to judge the Lagnados – still in shock from their sudden fall into poverty – for their fears and indecision; exactly the kind of harshness which judges and condemns migrants the world over until this day.

America is no fulfilment of a dream. To the youngsters it is the land of Elvis and Chubby Checker, of "carefree, fun-loving culture" and Hollywood glamour. But it is also a land of apples wrapped in cellophane and plastic flowers, of roses without scent and profound cultural dissonance. "In Egypt, it was easy to be religious and worldly at the same time, but that seemed an impossibility here in America." Loulou learns not to mention that she is from Cairo; at school she pretends she is French. "To be from Egypt meant you were from a primitive country, backward, unsavoury." The children, each in their own way, become Americanised, but Leon never acclimatises. The contradictions between American and Egyptian culture are too wide to straddle: between individualism and community, feminism and patriarchy, freedom and tradition. For Suzette, the strong-minded eldest daughter, America offers the chance to escape her father's restrictive authority. But for Leon himself, it is a rose without scent: "He fixated on the flowers as an emblem of all that was bewildering about his new home and his new country, and all that he missed about his old home and his old country." In Mrs Kirschner's most telling observation, he "regards the immigration as a calamity rather than an opportunity."

It is a tragic story, but not unleavened by humour, as for example in the descriptions of the children's first English classes. The teacher holds up a cup. "Cup," she instructs. Then she smashes it. "Broken cup," she informs them. In future lessons she repeats the operation with saucers, plates and glasses, all of which miraculously regenerate next time.

Nostalgia for old Cairo suffuses and floods this book; there is no balm for it, other than the rich and sensuous descriptions that strive to resurrect the city. It is personified in the figure of the father, the man in the white sharkskin suit who in his youth resembled Cary Grant and who is broken and destroyed by exile. Above all, as the title intimates, this is a book about him. Loulou, the child of his old age, accompanies him on his tours about town where, nicknamed "The Captain" because of his impeccable British-accented English, he wheels and deals and makes money, functioning easily in seven different languages, a diamond pin in his tie and a straw boater on his head. (The tarbooshes he once loved are banned by the revolutionaries as a symbol of the hated aristocracy, but he still keeps them; even in Egypt, life is not without its nostalgia.)

"The Captain" is a creature of the night, a long-standing bachelor with a taste for pleasure who marries late in life, and who causes his wife anguish with his continued nightly jaunts to clubs and gambling places. In her vivid descriptions, Loulou, now grown up into Lucette the author, summons him back to life as he was in this period before she knew him, his charm and poise as he strides through the streets of Cairo and the offices where he does business, where as he passes by he will "fish out some bonbons and fling them on every desk along the way, as if he were throwing dice on a gambling table."

He is also deeply religious. "Dieu est grand," he often repeats, at times of great happiness or great stress: a direct translation of the Muslim expression, "Allahu akbar." The phrase increasingly becomes his refuge as he faces physical decline, transformed by an ineluctable process from the svelte boulevardier into a lame old man. Loulou alone can truly accompany him on this journey, lamed as she is by her own mysterious ailment. One of the most poignant images in the book is that of Leon and Loulou vainly seeking medical help through the streets of Cairo: "We made an odd pair as we toured the specialists' offices – a tall, distinguished silver-haired gentleman whose right leg dragged, walking hand in hand with a diminutive girl with long dark hair and dark eyes, who shuffled ever so slightly on her left leg."

It is the account of the father and daughter bond which moved me more than anything, as another child of an exile born to his old age; the peculiar and poignant closeness which can spring up between a small daughter and a parent old enough to be her grandfather. I recognised my own stateless father in the photo of Leon's identity card, with his nationality "à determiner," to be determined (my own father's never was). I was reminded of my dad's perennial love for the simple foods of his childhood, of his habit of walking, walking the streets with me, hand in hand, of "the sense of absolute safety I feel nestled in that favourite spot I've staked out in the nook of his shoulder, au creux de son épaule." I identified, too, with the sense of guilt and betrayal, the yearning sense that one did not do enough to give comfort, and the inevitability of loss.

Lagnado writes in her acknowledgments of "my enigmatic father," and it is clear that Leon is a man of contradictions, tender and fearsome, generous and selfish, passionately devoted to family and to his own pleasure. He is also a patriarch of the old school. She does not soften or try to justify the enigma; it is not possible, any more than it is possible to reconcile once and for all the Cairene she once was with the New Yorker she has become.