The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (Ecco, $25.95) by Lucette Lagnado is a memoir about her family’s exile from Egypt and the course they chart from Cairo to Brooklyn in the years following Nasser’s rise in the 1960s. Like André Aciman’s Out of Egypt (1994), this book is powerful testimony to the ignored story of thousands of Jews from the Levant who, in the wake of Pan-Arabism, had to leave their homes never to return.
In poignant, understated prose, Lagnado, an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal, conjures Cairo’s alluring poise in the years following World War II with a researcher’s attention to detail, the emotional intensity of a first-person narrative and a novelist’s sympathetic imagination for all forms of human experience. It is primarily a loving homage to her father, Leon Lagnado, the man in the white sharkskin suit, a thriving businessman who knew all of Cairo, spoke seven languages and prospered in that city’s cosmopolitan culture. A King Lear of sorts, who refused to compromise his dearest values in America, he ended his trajectory ill and destitute, worn out by one disastrous investment after another.
An American dream in reverse, the book is also a coming-of-age tale in the picaresque tradition. It is the story of a very young child (the author) and an old man, and their adventures at home in Egypt (where, for instance, together they court their Arab neighbor, a beautiful young bride), then in a hostile new environment, America. Seen from the perspective of the author as a child, the story told by Loulou, as her father calls her tenderly, unfolds with candor and a keen eye for comedy—for example, the peculiar English language lesson they receive in Paris where the Lagnado family stops on the way to America. The pages on Miss Hakimian’s pedagogical skills ooze comical verve:
“ ‘Cup’, she’d say. We had to repeat after her: ‘Cup’. Then, in a feat that never ceased to amaze me, no matter how often I witnessed it, the teacher would take the cup and smash it in two. ‘Broken cup’, Miss Hakimian cried.”
Yet beneath the comic vision shaped by a child’s eye lurks a tragic vein. And ironic reversal is the book’s leitmotif: while Egyptian doctors believe Loulou has Cat Scratch Fever, an illness whose name sounds almost endearing, we learn it is Hodgkin’s disease. In America, nothing is what it seems: flowers are beautiful but odorless, bread is primarily dough and no crust, neighbors seem friendly but turn out to be ruthless landlords who evict them, hospitals have names like Maimonides yet are soulless. While life on Malaka Nazli Street, where the Lagnados lived in Cairo, was all openness, America is a space of opacity, hierarchies and limits.
Beyond ideological agendas or a starry- eyed attachment to the past, Lucette Lagnado’s fine critical eye dissects American culture and its pathologies, namely the narcissism of what she calls the “Me Decades.” While The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit is a memoir, it sets out to restore dignity and beauty to an endearing gallery of human portraits. And while it is a book about the self, it is also the most selfless and the least narcissistic memoir in recent years.
Yaëlle Azagury writes about French and Francophone literature and is at work on a memoir about her life in Morocco