Sarkozy, Still in Shadow

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By Tobias Grey,
a freelance reporter and literary critic in Paris
Thursday, May 15, 2008


A Year With Nicolas Sarkozy

By Yasmina Reza

Translated from the French by the author and Pierre Guglielmina

Knopf. 187 pp. $23

During his successful campaign for the French presidency last year, Nicolas Sarkozy's mantra was there must be "a rupture with the past." For the country to flourish, he said, the French economy and its ponderous institutions need to change. As the son of a Hungarian immigrant and the grandson of a Greek from ThessalonikiSalonica, Sarkozy clearly is not bound by the same overweening attachment to tradition as his predecessors.

"Part of the French elite detests me a lot more than they detest Israel or the Americans," Sarkozy told a delegation of Jewish leaders eight months before the election, according to playwright Yasmina Reza's unusual diary of the campaign. The comment is particularly telling because Sarkozy, who has Jewish ancestry, is possibly the most pro-American, pro-Israeli president in France's history.

To try to understand Sarkozy, Reza -- a literary superstar in France whose long-running play, "Art," has been performed in more than 30 languages -- tagged along with him for much of the year before his election. To put this in perspective, imagine David Mamet on John McCain's Straight Talk Express or Stephen Sondheim trailing Barack Obama.

"I am not looking to write on power or on politics, but rather on politics as a way of being," Reza explains. "I'm more interested in watching a man who intends to trump time."

Reza, of course, is talking about Sarkozy, often known in France as the "hyper-president" because of his bottomless reservoir of nervous energy. She describes him as "nibbling constantly. Nibbling, gobbling, rushing." And she likens him to an overgrown child: "The tie and the suit never fit his age. . . . The laugh is not the laugh of someone his age."

But she also notes his love of luxury and material trappings, which led to what many feel was the first mistake of his presidency. Immediately after his election, Sarkozy, who had spoken about finding "an abbey, or the solitude of some friendly house, to meditate on the magnitude of the task," was instead seen "on a two-hundred-foot yacht, moored in front of Malta, devouring lobsters with his family."

When "Dawn Dusk or Night" was published in France last August, just three months after Sarkozy's election, it instantly became a bestseller. Reza generated a great deal of intrigue by dedicating the book to a mysterious "G." Many in France believe that "G" is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a charismatic Socialist politician who had launched his own, unsuccessful bid for the presidency. The dedication raises the question of where Reza's sympathies lie, and the title even makes one wonder whom the book is really about. "There are no places in tragedy," Reza writes. "There are no hours either. Just dawn, dusk or night." But the tragedy does not seem to be Sarkozy's -- after all, he's the winner. Is it "G's"? One thing for sure: Reza is a terrible tease.

Unlike her minimalist plays and novels, which rarely feature more than four characters, her campaign diary juggles a large cast, including Sarkozy's extensive entourage and potential government ministers. Fortunately, the publisher of the English-language edition has provided footnotes identifying key personalities and organizations.

Reza's greatest strength is her ear for dialogue. She is particularly attentive to the disarmingly clumsy, beguiling way in which Sarkozy practices politics. "How many times these snippets of words, these falsely aborted sentences, these coy hesitations!" she writes with scalpel-like precision. But all too often she indulges in smart-sounding inanities, such as this line about politicians: "They play big. That's what moves me. They play big. They are both the player and the bet."

There are also moments of laziness in the writing. The wonderful verse of Jorge Luis Borges is a constant irritant in Reza's hands, so obtusely does she relate it to the themes of her book. "The poets have the privilege of obeying untimely laws, which require neither logic nor, apparently, follow-through. These laws serve a truth that all explanation would betray." Even allowing for some awkwardness in translation, this kind of false profundity is Reza at her worst.

She is on much safer ground when drawing parallels between the theater, which she obviously knows all about, and politics. A great opportunity comes when Sarkozy embraces French actor Christian Clavier. "They are hugging the way actors do," writes Reza. "Wild with joy, with love, with You, I mean you, my pal, shouted at the whole world. The kind of hug I have seen a thousand times, other places, other faces, actors hell-bent on hugging publicly, drunk with their own performance, with their demonstrative laughter, their superhuman zeal."

In the end, however, there are too few of these perceptive passages and too many vacuous ones. "The men that I'm talking about live in a world where words have the weight of helium," Reza comments. The same could be said of much of this book.

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