December 2011

Margaret Howie

fiction

The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages by Sophie Hardach

Inspired by a real-life manual released by the French public service, The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages, the funny and moving debut novel by German author Sophie Hardach, covers a daunting range of subjects. From the plight of Kurdish refugees to the effect of the new multicultural neighborhoods of Western Europe, the lightness of touch never betrays the poignancy of the subject matter.

In France, the original Registrar's Manual was a set of guidelines challenging the dangers of "forced marriages" in minority groups. It was soundly rejected by the intended users as impractical and offensive, but Hardach took the idea of a misguided bureaucratic document and put it in the hands of her narrator, a nameless registrar in Paris who has more than good intentions in mind. She also has a secret, well-hidden from her colleagues in the town hall: she was once married. As a teenager she was convinced by one refugee to save him from deportation, back when "we never heard about Kurdish honour killings. Back then, Kurdish men weren't perpetrators. They were victims."

The novel opens with the arrival as of a young Kurdish refugee: "Selim's first view of Europe was a vast, thick carpet of shit." It's an arresting start. Selim, who is travelling in blind faith from his village in southeast Turkey to the tentative welcome of Germany, bears witness to the death of a child -- more human waste -- and is interrogated by a grouchy translator who pushes him to come up with a date of birth to appease the bureaucrats of Neustadt. The future registrar meets him in her German hometown, where she is a teenage activist taking on the world, while he is an almost-silent, intensely pragmatic young man trying to get through more shit than anyone should ever face.

If there is one particular type of shit the novel tackles, it's that suspicious entity of good intentions. Over and over in the course of the book they are "the opposite of good." While Selim is being led by human traffickers into holding pens full of non-citizens, the narrator lets herself be caught up in her local activist scene with her friends, quickly getting pushed into committing borderline terrorist acts. Anyone familiar with the leftist activism environment will recognize the characters that show up, from the vaguely sinister older hippies hanging out with teenagers to the adrenaline junkies with no ideological beliefs save a love of chucking rocks at the police. There are also some astounding incompetents working on both sides of the refugee cause, from the mysterious author of the Manual to the painfully right-on social worker Carole, who urges the narrator to "un-distort her view of Kurdish relationships."

It's in comic details like this that this book really flies. At the supermarket the narrator works at she witnesses a telling instance of culture clash. Frau Brock, the determined manager of the fruit and vegetable section, wages a silent war against her despised nemeses, "the headscarves." She perceives the silent immigrant women who wait for the end of day discount stickers as representing a malignant social force, and all the young woman can do to try and breach the divide is offer her supervisor a self-help book, which is as ultimately useless as trying to follow the manual of the title.

The narrator uses the manual to try and find a way through her own confusion. As an adult, she looks back on her seven-year marriage, unsure of her principles and actions. Her exhaustion with politics after her youthful idealism is convincing, as her certainty and ideals ebb and shift and she begins to see more shades of gray. Ultimately it is in facing the messy complexities of their relationship, the ones that no manifesto or slogan can sum up, which becomes her saving grace.

While the registrar stumbles through the underbelly of Paris searching for the some sort of connection with the would-be married couples she works with, Selim continues to struggle in a post-9/11 world. Selim is no tragic hero, just a young man whose best wishes are continually struck down. "Whichever deity was steering," he reflects on his course in life, "was riotously drunk at the wheel." Implacably facing down the agonies of dispossession, Selim's fatalistic view only eases slightly toward the conclusion.

There are no easy solutions to the social problems the characters face. What we understand from the story of a registrar who was once sneered at by the officiant in her own wedding is that there's room for more compassion and understanding in a system that often seems remorseless. Despite the prevalence of good intentions, there is good to be found in this new human landscape of Europe. Hardach has pulled off an impressive balancing act, producing a charming comic novel believably anchored in a grim reality.

The Registrar's Manual for Detecting Forced Marriages by Sophie Hardach
Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 978-0857201188
416 pages