Fernanda Eberstadt, an ambitious, resourceful novelist with a lush style and a Manhattan background, has written, in “Little Money Street: In Search of Gypsies and Their Music in the South of France” (Knopf; $24.95), a piquant nonfictional account of her successful attempt to penetrate the Gypsy enclave of Perpignan. This city, at the eastern end of the Pyrenees, holds five thousand Gypsies in an urban center of around a hundred thousand. Eberstadt and her husband, Alistair Bruton, and their two small children found themselves living in a rented house outside Perpignan because Bruton, we are told a bit abruptly, “was writing a book about the decline of religion in modern Europe, and was looking for somewhere half to hole up in, half to base it on.” Why this obscure, unprosperous, and atypical region of France—the province of Roussillon, ceded by Spain as late as 1659 and still regarded by many of its natives as “northern Catalonia”—should serve his investigative purpose is left mysterious, but its usefulness to his wife is made clear. In the course of a cosmopolitan life, she has always, she tells us, “been drawn to Gypsies”: after a childhood glimpse of a trio begging at an outdoor café in Paris, she has “sought out Gypsies—Gypsies who run travelling circuses in Ireland, or sleep in the ruined Byzantine city walls in Istanbul, or camp on the beach in Palermo, or even live in a brownstone basement on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.” Though her six years of living in Roussillon may have left her with “the same attraction to their intractable difference,” readers of her account, if this reviewer is an example, will be cured of any faint desire they may ever have entertained to live like a Gypsy.
Evidently it’s a miserable life, for the shiftless, jobless, largely illiterate men, and twice as bad for the homebound women, generally married in their teens to other teens, who will bully, betray, tyrannize, and most likely beat them. As for their children, they stay up so late watching television and hanging out on the street that they are usually too sleepy to go to school; Gypsies must be the only significant ethnic group in France that actively discourages literacy and encourages truancy. Compared with them, the embattled immigrants from the Muslim world are models of aspiration to bourgeois order and enlightenment. One of Eberstadt’s more hallucinante chapters describes a conference on education held at Collège Jean Moulin, a junior high school for preponderantly Gypsy students. “The occasion is pretty merry,” she writes. “People who work with Gypsies tend to laugh a lot. It’s a laughter of hysterical exasperation, because if you didn’t laugh, you’d hang yourself or quit.” The school’s principal, a “barrel-chested, crewcutted Catalan” named Paul Landric, is quoted:
“If an Arab kid cuts school, he stays in the street so his parents don’t find out. If a Gypsy plays hookey, it’s in order to stay home. Here, it’s the parents who are the disruptive influence, mothers who want to coddle their sons, fathers who don’t want their daughters to be seen hanging with boys at school. The girl is a commodity, and they don’t want her to lose her market value.”
Her value, as a virgin, is ascertained not by the young groom on the wedding night but, according to archaic folk custom, by the probing finger of a tribal crone: Eberstadt’s partially renegade Gypsy friend Linda explains, “For Gypsies, it’s a nasty old woman who is paid to penetrate the girl, like a gynecologist but with dirty hands, in front of all the husband’s family. It’s terrifying, it’s inhuman.” Landric sums up: “People talk about preserving Gypsy culture. But what am I as an educator supposed to do when the comportment of my students is frankly pathological?” Eberstadt, liberal enough to doubt liberal pieties, complains that “if these pedagogues were nineteenth-century missionaries to a cannibal island, they could not be more convinced that the belief system they wished to impose upon the Gypsy savages—in this case, egalitarian secularism—was as unequivocal a good as clean water.” Yet she comes down, finally, on the side of clean water, asserting that the French authorities are “using their utmost powers of imagination and sympathy to devise ways of freeing a community that was clearly stuck and unhappy.”
Gypsies were not always so stuck; their nomadism, now legally discouraged by most European governments, excused their educational recalcitrance, and they maintained “a seventeenth-century agrarian culture designed for seasonal pickers, small artisans, blacksmiths, market sellers.” They used to be “horse breeders, blacksmiths, basket-weavers,” trades that became obsolete in the sixties. The author, however, is not offering to solve “Gypsy problems,” or to give a history of this curious people, which, linguistic evidence indicates, originated in India and has endured centuries of disapproval and persecution throughout Europe, including decimation in the Holocaust.
Eberstadt engages with Gypsies as a small set of local friends, and came to them via a CD put out by Sony in 1999, “Ida y Vuelta,” featuring a mostly Gypsy band called Tekameli. The CD, she tells us, is “supremely cultic . . . veiled, hermetic . . . arcane”: “The musicians are Frenchmen singing Pentacostalist hymns in a language—Gypsy Catalan—that very few people know exists. It brings news from a place no one’s heard of, and the news is at once too close and too distant to be intelligible.” Any of us, to be sure, would be fascinated by music so hard to describe or pigeonhole, but perhaps only a New York writer, marooned with her family in a “fairly desolate,” “half-savage,” and “malnourished” backwater of Europe, would have undertaken a vigorous pursuit of the members of the elusive band:
For months, I listened hypnotically to Ida y Vuelta, while pursuing Tekameli leads and Gypsy research on the side. I left phone messages on dead voice mails. I spoke to musicians’ daughters, nephews, cousins-in-law, who told me to call back later, by which time the telephone had been cut off. In a perfect emblem of futility, I sent letters composed in painstaking schoolgirl French to men I later discovered were illiterate. . . . I moped, I fretted, I sulked.
She was advised by a Catalan disk jockey to attend an Assemblée—a church of the Protestant Pentecostalism that since the nineteen-sixties has exerted a dominating influence on France’s Gypsy population. She found the church packed with gender-segregated Gypsies, singing and testifying in Gitan, the gruff dialect spoken in St. Jacques, a former Jewish ghetto in Perpignan settled by Gypsies when the Vichy government cleared out the Jews. In the Assemblée, a young man, entering late, took the chair beside her, and, seeing her, “started back in an involuntary fright, the appalled recoil of a toddler who’s just realized that the adult whose knees he’s reaching for isn’t his mother.” She declares, “It was then that I understood something of the reality behind Gypsy defiance, Gypsy insults, Gypsy jeers. St. Jacques Gypsies are in fact far more scared of non-Gypsies than even the timidest non-Gypsy is of them.”
A resolutely non-timid non-Gypsy, Eberstadt finds her way in, eventually, via the discontented wives and female consorts of the Tekameli musicians. Two, especially, allow themselves to be befriended and seen close up: Linda, “thirty years old, tall and beautiful, with a dimpled white smile, hair done in a headdress of African braids, good make-up, and charm like a Mickey Finn,” and her sister, “small, bedraggled” Diane, her “sheepish grin” marred by brown or missing teeth. It is runty, scatterbrained Diane, and not handsome, efficient Linda, who is the common-law wife of Moïse Espinas, the lead Tekameli singer and “possessor of the greatest voice north of Barcelona.” Moïse, who is twenty-eight when Eberstadt meets him and already growing plump, has “a complicated attitude toward music, as if his own gift lies in a state of untaught purity that might be defiled either by too much use or by exposure to other people’s music.” He and his colleagues would rather play cards than rehearse. Guy Bertrand, a musical Frenchman who gives himself credit for developing Roussillon Gypsy music into commercial viability, sees little future for it:
“It’s not easy to work with Gypsies. . . . They have no structure in their lives, no discipline, no vision, and hence they can’t critique themselves, they can’t develop. Musically, they are as good at fourteen as they ever will be. . . . In all the years I’ve known him, Moïse has never done a single thing to deepen or improve or develop his music. All he’s done is strut around for journalists, blowing his money, and making babies all over the world.”
In Eberstadt’s reckoning, Gypsy values amount to a disabling intensification of “family values”: a good wife, in her obligatory ankle-length black skirt, can’t leave the house without a husband’s permission, and men would rather laze around “at home, tranquille” than work. It is “a culture in which girls are best off braindead.” Eberstadt indignantly concludes, “What differentiates ‘la loi gitane’ ”—Gypsy law—“from Judaism or Islam or more fundamentalist brands of Christianity is that there is no corresponding code of male probity, nor is there any sense of divine will behind the prohibitions. Gypsy laws, it seems, are made not to glorify God but merely to spite women!”
Nevertheless, the transplanted New Yorker has some good times with her new friends. She develops a kind of crush on Linda—“a gorgeous woman in full command of her own sexuality”—and in girlish mall outings and car rides with Diane experiences the “kind of wild abandoned fun I haven’t known since I was seventeen.” She even gets taken by Moïse to a cockfight—indeed, the Perpignan championship, twenty-five bouts held in a nameless settlement of Andalusian Gypsies—and is the only woman in the crowd. Her description of the bouts and their human promoters is as gaudy and appalling as the cockfight scene in Nathanael West’s “Day of the Locust.” This chapter and her succeeding one, describing the laughter-filled education conference, constitute the book’s most vivid reportage and together cinch its apparent point that the Gypsies are a hopeless case, their recreations as vicious and vacuous as their traditional defense mechanisms are self-ruinous:
They forget their French and keep their children out of school and marry them to their first cousins aged fourteen. They accept bribes to vote for Mayor Alduy. They lose their teeth and are too frightened to go to the dentist. They die of minor diseases against which other French people—people who go to school—are inoculated. And they don’t leave a trace.
As writing, “Little Money Street” is lively and varied, moving proficiently between statistics and anecdote, warm sympathy and cold condemnation. As narrative, “Little Money Street” has a distracting double focus; trying to see the Gypsies, we keep seeing the hip, assertive, irresistible journalist. She is more than marginally visible, imparting confidences like “I think, This place is godforsaken, but its broken beauties are in my bloodstream.” The reader is flattered to share the other worlds of sophisticated experience that she brings to bear upon her sorry Gypsy slum. A visit to a Perpignan community center begins with this riff:
It is a concrete building painted in one of those schoolchildren’s murals of happy faces and sunflowers that tend to embellish neighborhoods where drive-by shootings are a common occurrence and life expectancy for young males is a whole lot lower than the national average.
A gang of young Gypsy men slinking on the street, “cigarettes dripping from downy lips,” wins a burst of global allusions: “They are often heartbreakingly beautiful, these boys, sometimes astonishingly debauched-looking, in a manner recalling Caravaggio ephebes, Pasolini’s ragazzi di vita, and they dress in a bygone style of gangster dandyism.” Allusiveness so generous has the effect of taking our mind down side roads, wondering what unastonishing debauched looks the witness has seen, and exactly when a bygone gangster style was chic, and whose heart is breaking.
Eberstadt’s vocabulary sometimes shows an impatient petulance, as when the Gypsies’ aged Mercedeses are reported to have “engines cannibalized from crappier cars,” the earthy adjective returning in a heated lament over the consumerism “in which people are persuaded to express their love for their children through the acquisition of crappy goods they can’t afford.” Her assimilation of the Gypsy point of view becomes perhaps too thorough when she tells of a flagrant case of shoplifting—more than eight hundred dollars’ worth of goods—thwarted by “a fellow-customer, an unidentified toady who should rot in hell.” A female small-town mayor, an innocent bystander in the narrative, comes off as “a porky blonde.” The author’s relative youth seems vaunted in so florid a display of pop-musical lingo as:
The blend of loony upbeat Afro-Caribbean bounce and hoarse flamenco-style yowls of brokenhearted prayer—an effect as schizophrenically original as R & B—created a music that seemed to express the perverse vagaries of a soul yearning for union with God.
Such verbal largesse foments a somewhat en haut tone; we are led to reflect that the author was possibly welcomed into the company of Gypsy women not only for her charm and sense of fun and flattering curiosity but because, in her past advantages and present freedoms and—a significant attraction—command of her own car, she loomed in their restricted, impecunious world as a phenomenon and even as a deliverer. Near the end of her long stay, a drug addict’s husband makes begging motions: “The funny thing is, in six years of hanging around St. Jacques Gypsies, this is the first time anybody’s ever hit me up for money. I figure I’ve got off lightly, so I head for the nearest cash machine.”We are not surprised when, late in “Little Money Street,” its author confesses, “Writers—most writers—are opportunists: I had got my material, more than I could possibly use, and now . . . I needed not to see Diane in order to be able to ‘see’ her better.” As the writer’s children age, the culture gap widens; and months go by without her phoning her Gypsy friends. Yet—to end on a happy note—when, “after a long absence,” she does “ring Diane’s doorbell,” she receives “a prodigal welcome.” Old times are remembered, old friends revisited, new developments registered. Moïse has become a grandfather at thirty-one and has “been in mysteriously bad health.” At the farewell party that Eberstadt and her family give before they move to a bigger house, a four-hour train ride away, in central France, Moïse sings, but still as “a great singer who hates to sing . . . for whom his ‘gift’ is something that at times he’s seen as an easy way of making money or getting girls, but that more often is awkward, shaming, even anguishing.” After a few songs, the chatter of the non-Gypsy guests, “as if we were in a restaurant and he were hustling for spare change,” offends him and he stalks off. Later, he is coaxed to sing again, in a voice “waning from neglect.” Soon he will be baptized and sing only canticles, reducing his family to living on welfare and handouts from relatives. Eberstadt’s mildly melancholy coda to her dire portrait of contemporary European Gypsies leaves us with the mollifying impression that all parties end untidily, all lives are more or less muddles, and we all are, as the French officially term nomadic minorities, “gens du voyage.”