Among the fundamental questions that have become matters of public concern in the post-9/11 era are how western societies should handle Middle Eastern immigrants and whether the state has a role in regulating cultural and religious practices. In France, the government has made these issues a matter of law. In 2004, Jacques Chirac signed legislation that banned the wearing of religious symbols in government-run schools, and the Sarkozy government recently implemented a law banning the niqab in public.
The unnamed heroine who narrates The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages, Sophie Hardach's first novel, doesn't offer opinions on these laws. But as a clerk in the Paris mayor's office who helps to officiate marriages, she confronts these and related concerns daily. As the book's title indicates, some of the marriage applicants she faces may be about to enter into forced marriages. Yet the titular manual is instructive rather than prescriptive. Her job doesn't require her to interrogate applicants about the nature of their prospective unions, only to be vigilant for the most obviously egregious cases. Even so, when a swaggering young Kurdish man comes to obtain the requisite forms for a couple he claims to represent - in typical fashion, the religious ceremony already occurred in Turkey; all that remains is the civil, legally binding ceremony in France - our clerk can't help but get involved. She also embarks on an extended reminiscence of her own experience with a marriage under false pretences.
What follows is an exploration into the lives of Kurdish immigrants in France and Germany that lucidly, if at times cursorily, considers the plight of immigrants and the native-born alike. Rather than considering each community alone, Hardach's inquiry focuses on the intersections of these communities and on the variegated definitions of marriage: how marriage can be an act of love, something forced, or a reluctant alliance against a difficult world.
Hardach, who is German but studied in the UK and has worked around the world as a correspondent for Reuters, wrote her novel in English. Perhaps like her author, the book's narrator is a particular kind of 21st century European: liberal; essentially stateless (she has dual French-German citizenship but feels no particular fealty to either), yet with some affection for social democratic institutions; culturally sensitive and curious, but not so in love with the "other" as to be blind to gender inequalities; and with a sense of youthful idealism that gradually fades as she settles into a comfortable life as a member of the petit bourgeoisie.
Growing up in Neustadt, Germany, in the 1990s, the narrator is introduced to a Kurdish immigrant named Selim, who arrived in Europe in 1992, when he was 13. In one of a series of smart narrative choices, Hardach spends several chapters describing the painful early years of Selim's European odyssey before explaining the connection between him and the narrator. About one-third of the way into the novel, we learn that the narrator and Selim married when both were 18 so that Selim would not be deported to Turkey, where he may face persecution, or even execution, for his family's connections with the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement.
Thus a great irony is introduced: the narrator married Selim for political reasons - as "a political act for a person" - but did she really make this choice? At the very least, friends and a network of feckless activists surrounding Selim applied some pressure, but the narrator was also a teenage anarchist who took part in protests against the German nuclear industry and other perceived capitalist evils. The marriage to Selim seems like an extension of that activism, a product of a time when they felt that they had found an intoxicating agency over their own lives: "As teenagers, we still thought we could change the weather." Selim, a kindly, passive young man homesick for Kurdistan but desperate to remain in Europe, is grateful for the arrangement.
Even so, the union quickly brings problems, as the two must coordinate their lives and learn about one another, to avoid attracting the attention of the German government, who could deport Selim or throw them both in jail. Each new batch of paperwork, each application for permanent residency, becomes ominous and exhausting, as the two wonder when, and how, their shared ordeal will end.
Selim and the future registrar marry in 1997, but everything changes, of course, after September 11. The German government tightens its immigration standards. Whereas pro-PKK protests were once tolerated - Hardach wonderfully summarises a pre-9/11 march in Germany as "a few bored policemen… leaning against their vans, waiting for the Kurds to get on with it" - the group now becomes labelled a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union.
The narrator moves to Paris but is periodically called back to Germany to fill out more paperwork or to respond to a minor crisis in their tenuously shared life. Throughout these years, she is mired in a sense of existential unease as she wonders whether her act of generosity has robbed her of her full measure of freedom. With the marriage a secret except to a small inner circle of friends, Selim struggles to find gainful employment and loses a girlfriend who's outraged that he kept his marriage from her. The call to return home remains strong. In a poignant scene, he lingers over news footage of PKK rebels, wondering if one of the fighters is his younger sister. He becomes sure that he's watching her, but his certitude may be an intentional bit of self-deception, rejuvenating his pride in a family and people from which he is becoming increasingly disassociated.
In the past decade, we've become inured to particular kinds of story that are products of the so-called war on terror: extraordinary renditions, racial profiling at airports, innocent people ending up on watch lists, the transformation of the immigration process to something excruciatingly byzantine. Hardach's novel should be commended for nodding to but ultimately avoiding some of these stories - not because they're unimportant but because there are others to tell, ordeals which may be less melodramatic but are all the same representative of the world in which many of us now live.
The novel's narrator is well suited to ferreting out these forgotten corners of post-9/11 immigrant life. During her adolescence, "the Kurdish question" is a ubiquitous topic of discussion. Add to that her relationship with Selim and a globalised sensibility, and she becomes a perspicacious observer of the immigrants living on society's periphery. Walking along a canal, she sees a group of Afghan boys living under a bridge and observes: "These days, all over Paris, there were little clusters of hope and despair; humans fashioning settlements out of nothing. Mattresses, bundles of African cloth, pots full of bubbling stew: little villages amid the urban grit and exhaust fumes."
Thankfully, Hardach avoids the kind of uninspired dispensing of history and information that can plague novels of outsiders writing about foreign cultures. There is one chapter in which the narrator goes to a Paris library to learn about traditional Kurdish life, but Hardach skirts this pitfall by devising an ingenious solution: she turns the chapter on the narrator's research into a short story of its own, chronicling the journey of an early 20th-century French scholar through Kurdish lands.
The Registrar's Manual contains many small moments of comedy, such as the description by Monsieur Dubois, the previous registrar, of the manual's creation: "The resulting draft was hailed as an unprecedented tool for concerned registrars, a small revolution in the realm of officialdom that excited mayors and minions alike." But Hardach's sense of comedy comes with a lightness of touch that ultimately leads one back to the sadness undergirding her characters' lives. One can laugh at the narrator's description of a Dr Habicht: "He looked unwell in the way of someone who carefully grooms his misery, sadly blowing the steam off a mug of herbal tea", but knowing that Habricht is Selim's lawyer leaves one pessimistic about his abilities as an advocate.
It's through this interleaving of pathos and tart irony that Hardach creates "the comical monstrosity" that eventually constitutes Selim's life. A quietly wilful man, he has struggled to improve his lot; whether the world in which he seeks refuge will be able to accommodate him is another matter.
Jacob Silverman is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Republic.