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BOOK REVIEW

An unorthodox campaign report

Dawn, Dusk or Night; A Year With Nicolas Sarkozy; Yasmina Reza, translated from the French by the author and Pierre Guglielmina; Alfred A. Knopf: 190 pp., $23

June 09, 2008|Thomas McGonigle | Special to The Times

The most interesting political book to be written in the U.S. in the coming year will be inspired by Yasmina Reza's "Dawn, Dusk or Night," which follows a year in the life of Nicolas Sarkozy as he campaigns for the presidency of France.

The as-yet-unwritten tome will follow the last days of the presidency of George W. Bush as he prepares to give up being the most powerful man in the world. Of course, this is probably an impossible literary dream.

Reza's book, meanwhile, is quite possibly the most innovative and startling report on a political campaign ever written because of its absolute refusal to pander through explanation.

Reza approached Sarkozy in 2006 when his presidential ambitions were just rumor. She proposed that she follow him in his quest, and within a couple of minutes, Sarkozy agreed.

Reza could be a silent full member of his entourage with only one restriction: She could not ask him any direct political questions. Reza, a novelist and playwright best known for her Tony Award-winning play, "Art," happily accepted.

In the conventional sense, it could be said that Reza's book is about nothing at all. It will not remind readers of any campaign book they have ever read, including "The Making of the President" volumes of the 1960s and '70s by Theodore White; "The Selling of the President," Joe McGinniss' take on the 1968 Nixon campaign; or any of the books promising to detail the "real story" of a campaign or to dish the gossip and reveal all the terrible things said and done in aid of getting the candidate elected.

Reza's book is, in her words, about something so simple and so profound as to be seemingly always overlooked: "I am not looking to write on power or on politics, but rather on politics as a way of being. I'm more interested in watching a man who intends to trump time." Regarding the who, what, where, when and why, we are constantly reminded that Reza's great innovation is to supply the who, when, where -- the myriad visits to factories, town halls, schools, the back-and-forth trips across France and even to Algeria and the United States -- a little of the what and avoid the easily dated why.

Reza includes snatches of conversation, vignettes, observations of dress -- Sarkozy switches from Lanvin to Dior -- and the fidgets of the candidate always aware of his watch, of which he is very proud, and the marker of his incredible impatience, a man with "desire to emancipate oneself from others, to put oneself out of reach."

Nothing is revealed or everything is revealed and the choice is up to the reader. Of interest to Americans will be Reza accompanying Sarkozy on an early visit with President Bush. She records candidate Sarkozy, responding to a question: "How am I different from Bush? He was elected president of the United States twice."

Reza notes that "none of the journalists present in the room at the Sofitel seems to appreciate the intelligence of this response, and I will not see it quoted anywhere in the French press." It is on this trip when Reza tips her own strict neutrality. "In the office of the splendid Barack Obama, the idea of America itself is hanging on the walls." At the end of the book, after Sarkozy has been elected president, Reza remembers some words he had told her: "Stranger to my past, he had said. Born on a soil that means nothing and is nowhere, and no Ithaca to return to." In conversation, Reza admits that she shares with Sarkozy the absence of a roof over her head, as it is said in France. She is the daughter of an Iranian Jewish father born in Russia and a Hungarian Jewish mother; Sarkozy's father was a Hungarian immigrant and his mother was of French, Greek and Jewish origin.

Until very recently in America, as still in France, we are accustomed to thinking of a politician as both living in and coming from a particular place -- Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts; Bill Clinton, Arkansas.

Reza, though born in France, could never answer the question in school as to where she came from. "When we were children, my father, born to Iranian parents in Moscow, married to a Hungarian, declaimed poems of Victor Hugo and La Fontaine. . . . At school, friends would say, I'm from Bretagne, I'm from Alsace, I didn't understand these divisions, I said, if I were asked, I'm Iranian, a passport from nowhere."

Today, Reza knows that her patrie is the French language in much the same way that Sarkozy at the beginning of his campaign was always talking about the French people while avoiding the simple word "France." Now that Sarkozy is president, he no longer avoids the word.

During the campaign, Reza writes of a visit to a metals factory, "One could write anything about that absent face, staring at the cylinder pressed on both sides, forever smothered. One could also write about the destiny of things made of metal. A few days ago, he [Sarkozy] said, referring to a fictionalized history book, Imagination is as true as reality."

With the constant emphasis on time in Reza's book, I was reminded of what comes after the present moment. When asked about his future, Philip Dimitrov, the first prime minister in post-Communist Bulgaria, replied, "There is no more comical figure than the former prime minister of a Balkan country." For a man like Sarkozy, living so energetically in the present, one hopes he realizes -- as one hopes that Bush also realizes -- what inevitably comes after a moment of power.

--

Thomas McGonigle is the author of "Going to Patchogue" and "The Corpse Dream of N. Petkov."

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