Review: A Tunisian Tale

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May 28, 2012 by markstani

While cul-de-sac book groups prepare to ease themselves into the sun-lounger world of Richard & Judy’s latest Summer Reads, Egypt still teeters and Syria descends deeper into an all together deeper kind of hell.
This is not intended to send thousands of happy-reading housewives hurtling off on an Arab-inspired guilt trip, rather as a straight-forward fact that for the majority, fiction represents a chance of escapism which will extricate them still further from the news desk reality of blood and war in distant lands.
Hassouna Mosbahi’s A Tunisian Tale didn’t make Richard & Judy’s cut, and to say it’s not exactly surprising is an under-statement. It’s a grim and challenging novel, and, although it doesn’t predict Tunisia’s role in the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ directly, it is also rather a topical one.
It’s a novel about internecine strife and societal taboos set largely in a slum crouched on the edge of modern Tunis, told in the alternating viewpoints of a dead mother and her son who has immolated her, and who hunkers unapologetically in jail awaiting execution.

I speak from beyond the grave. Can you believe this, O living people? Your response doesn’t matter much to me because I can’t hear it anyway, but let me assure you that just a short while ago the merciful angel whispered to inform me that I can address you from the furthest reaches of eternal darkness. What a treat for you, and for me, too! I had always believed that speaking to you would be impossible once I departed your world and turned into a clump of ash. So listen up, and I’ll tell you my story from start to finish. I’ll regale you with all of its details. They may please you at times, horrify you at others, and might even make you feel sympathy for me and take pity upon me, or else become repulsed and then recoil in disgust. Anything’s possible. But rest assured that I’ll always be honest with you, and I won’t neglect to mention a single detail, no matter how pretty or ugly it may seem, because I know all too well that you are just as curious as the people of M Slum, where I lived ever since leaving my faraway village at the age of nineteen, up until that simmering summer day when flames consumed my body.

Still with us? Good. Because for all that undeniable grimness, ‘A Tunisian Tale’ is an incredibly kinetic book, which will pick you up and swirl you through a chute of hypocrisy and contradiction right to its invigorating conclusion. It’s Mosbahi’s first book to be translated into English (pub. American University of Cairo Press), and is superbly done so by Max Weiss, whose adaptation ensures it retains all of its pace and energy.
Dead narrators are always a risk, but they seem to be enjoying something of a – pardon the expression – new lease of life of late, following Yan Lianke’s successful use of the same conceit for his multi-award listed Dream Of Ding Village. Here also, it feels neither contrived nor clumsy. The two opposing voices unfurl their life stories, almost their defence cases: the mother reveals a living nightmare of jealousy and vicious rumour which forced her down the path her son found so abhorrent; he rants his reasons for the terrible act we know he is about to perpetrate.
If the questions of honour at the centre of the novel are not uncommon, and if others have certainly delved more thoroughly, the way Mosbahi approaches the same issues is refreshing, and those highlights are clear and pertinent.
Were it not for the fact that the son effectively expresses his guilt in the opening page, this book could almost be considered fast and engrossing enough to nudge towards the thriller sections of the more adventurous book stores that stock it.
That said, it’s more likely to carry a health warning for souls of a delicate disposition than a Book Club sticker any time soon – and it’s all the better for it. As riveting and rewarding as it is dark and unforgiving, ‘A Tunisian Tale’ marks Mosbahi as another new Arabic writer-in-translation to watch.

‘A Tunisian Tale’ was recommended by Arablit, whose interview with translator Max Weiss is here

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