June 16, 2012
This was a recommendation from one of the newest book bloggers on the block. Based in Redeyef, Tunisia, English teacher Ali Znaidi set up Tunisian Literature (in English) in May 2012 to plug a gap in the blogosphere, which seemed to have nothing in English dedicated specifically to Tunisian writing.
Providing news, book reviews and other information, Znaidi aims to raise awareness about his country’s literature. It therefore seemed natural to turn to him for a recommendation for this project – particularly as, from what I could find out, Tunisian literature is relatively rarely translated, compared to literature from many other Arab countries.
Znaidi confirmed what I suspected about the scarcity of Tunisian texts in English, but he came back with several suggestions. Of these, I went with Talismano by French-language writer Abdelwahab Meddeb.
Told by a Tunisian writer living in Paris (much like Meddeb himself), the 1979 novel, which the author reworked in 1987, is built around an imagined return to Tunis, Fez and the other cities of the narrator’s youth. As he wanders for a period of roughly 24 hours through streets built half from memory and half from fantasy, the protagonist tests the boundaries of experience and writing itself, by turns engaging in the sensual, riotous and often shocking events he encounters and stepping back to comment on the world and his place in it.
Culture and identity are central threads. As the writer walks through his ‘maze of discovery’, he records the impact that colonialism and the different communities that migrated to the region have had on the places he sees, mingling aspects of Islamic and Judao-Christian culture with ancient myths and secularism to create a heady, bustling and often bewildering text.
A polymath par excellence, Meddeb reaches for cultural references the way an experienced chef works with rare herbs and spices, adding complex layers of flavour and piquancy to his creation. From Dante, Hesse and Joyce, to the Koran and ancient Egyptian theology, the text is broad and full in its scope – a book more of the world than of any particular time and place.
Some of the references are clearly deliberately obscure, however, the experience of reading the novel as a Brit with very little knowledge of Tunisian culture added another layer of disorientation: there were times when I was not sure whether my missing things was part of the author’s design or a function of my own cultural blind spots.
This becomes clearer as the narrative unfolds, carrying with it a series of knowing commentaries on writing and the author’s craft. Perhaps the most telling of these comes right at the end in the Epilogue:
‘We have confided through writing, but without giving you a foothold, have strained your eyes with our arabesque of words, have recommended the circuits of our journey, have warned you of the fissure in all that meets the eye, have unsettled you on high moral grounds, have ruined you among the most robust constitutions, have dusted myself off, vanished into thin air, have found my way inside you through the least perceptible slit’.
No wonder then that extracting coherent meaning from the narrative sometimes feels like trying to scale a glass wall.
This can make for a frustrating reading experience, particularly in the early stages. However if you allow yourself to surrender to the narrative, and let it flow over you, carrying with it its tide of impenetrable allusions, you may be surprised by the insights and recognitions that flash suddenly from it like gems buried in the shifting sand of the seabed.
Beautiful, maddening, disturbing and strange, this is a book for the intrepid armchair adventurers out there. It is not a comfortable ride, but when you reach the end and look back along the route you’ve travelled, you get one hell of a view.
Talismano by Abdelwahab Meddeb, translated from the French by Jane Kuntz (Dalkey Archive Press, 2011)