Migration and mourning: a new path to understanding in Youssouf Amine Elalamy Prize-winning novel What a Lovely War

Migration and mourning: a new path to understanding in Youssouf Amine Elalamy Prize-winning novel What a Lovely War

Published in 2019, What a Lovely War [C’est beau, la guerre] is the grand champion of the Orange Book Prize in Africa, 2020. Nominated by the Senegalese committee, the author is Youssouf Amine Elalamy, a Moroccan author also known as YAE. In 1991 and after a Master’s in English Literature, he received a Fulbright scholarship based in Manhattan. His migration to the United States is therefore closely linked to his academic career. YAE returned to Morocco in 1993 and published his first novel, A Moroccan in New York in 1998. 

The acclaimed piece, What a Lovely War, is narrated through the voice of a young actor who, forced into exile – because of an unknown war in a nameless territory – embarks on a ship. In a refugee camp, the young man decides to repair the alives by playing the roles of those who disappeared. There, our narrator meets Aya, having lost her fiancé Houssame, and Maha, mourning her husband Sami. 

The theme of death in the context of war, exile, and arrival in a host country’s land is at the forefront of this fiction. In fact, migrants crossing the Mediterranean fall into the legal black holes of the migration crisis and beyond the jurisdiction of each state, become rightless. Without legal recognition, dignified burials following the principles of human rights are inconceivable.

In March 2020, IOM had a minimum estimate of 237 deaths in the Mediterranean since the start of the year. The dead give way to numbers and as the scholar Homi K.Bhabha writes, “names lost in life are anonymous in death”. Those who live, are prisoners of a jurisdictional vacuum and have to deal with the proximity of life and death. Death-life must therefore be understood as an ontological condition of the agents who engage in the migratory project. In this regard, and in a fiction dealing with contemporary migration, the novelist Eperneck writes: “All the African refugees here… are simultaneously alive and dead. “.

Many scholars have stressed the need to develop rationales that start from the migrant’s standpoint. Understanding the rationality of risk and the despair of those who engage in migratory projects, Baldwin explains, “would require the policy to begin otherwise, from another place and by way of another ‘subject’.” 

In an interview, YAE maintained:

“What was missing [in the media] was the human dimension. When you read the novel; you see that through the consciousness of the mind of real people who are there, it’s another story”.

What a Lovely War is also about these stories, of impossible mourning, of upheavals and violence seizing lands, homes, and bodies. No precise names or places throughout this story in four acts. All these subjectivities, admittedly fictitious, advise us to acknowledge the non-fictional realities of our times. Therefore, it seems that the work of Youssef Amine Elalamy can be used as a source of legitimate and informative data on the themes of bereavement and migration.

Ultimately, a sensitive reader will recognize the glaring truth behind the title of the fourth chapter: Reparer les vivants to repair the alives. The ultimate empathy of the young actor, who borrows the costumes of the deceased for the bereaved, is perhaps the key to Youssef Elalamy’s work. A sort of reconstruction of the tragedy of war, of exposure and of wounds, through substitution. An empathy which perhaps makes it possible, in fact, to repair the alives

By Sarra Riahi. 


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