Tunisia: maze of discovery

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)

Sweden: fellow globetrotters

I’m not the only one trying to read the world. Since I launched this project to explore a novel, short story collection or memoir from every UN-recognised country in 2012, I’ve heard from people engaged in a whole range of international literary quests.

One of the latest ventures I’ve come across is by Swedish blogger Fredrika, who stopped by this blog ten days ago to tell me about a project she started in November to read a book from every country. Much more organised than me, she got a pretty comprehensive list together before she started and is working her way through it over the course of the next few years. Her criteria are different to mine, in that she is taking on some historical and anthropological books too, however there are also some fascinating fiction and biography choices on her list.

Fredrika has clearly done a massive amount of thinking about world literature, so when she recommended a Swedish title for me, I decided I’d be mad not to give it a try.

The book was Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, an award-winning novel exploring the experience of immigrants in Sweden. Told through a correspondence between one Jonas Khemiri and Kadir, who claims to be an old family friend, the book is a daring, powerful and often hilarious attempt to unfold the story of the struggle of Dads, Jonas’s estranged father, to make a life for himself in Scandinavia after he left Tunisia as a young man.

The novel is rich with comedy as the overbearing Kadir wrestles with the author in an attempt to guide and direct the narrative as he sees fit. This manifests itself in a variety of ways, from Kadir’s ‘glissades of truth’ to his patronising asides to the author about writing techniques and instructions for how he should handle particular events – ‘this scene must be filled with great dramatic gunpowder and symphonic basses’, he writes at one point.

Best of all are Kadir’s odd expressions and similes, which had me laughing on nearly every page of the first half of the book. Among the most sparkling examples are his descriptions of Jonas’s paternal grandmother as ‘a powerfully strong woman who grappled with her context like the wrestler and actor Hulk Hogan’, his confession of his suspicion ‘that [Jonas’s father] had become infected with homosex’ at one point and his later remark that ‘the tooth of time had munched a festive breakfast on his exterior’.

That translator Rachel Willson-Broyles is able to convey the linguistic quirks of Kadir’s Arabicised Swedish is testament to her great skill. This skill is essential to getting the subtleties of the book across as the narrative delves deeper into Dads’s battle to shrug off the label of ‘immigrant’ and establish himself in a society that becomes ever more hostile to outsiders or ‘blatte’ as Jonas grows up.

This battle, which sees Dads reject his origins in an effort not to ‘infect [his] son with being an outsider’, takes place as much on the linguistic as on the physical level and leaves deep scars. For much of the book, Jonas writes about himself in the second person, as though cut off from his identity, and his consciousness of the losing linguistic battle his father had to fight is acute:

‘One single wrong preposition is all it takes. A single en word that should be an ett. Then their second-long pause, the pause they love, the pause that shows that no matter how much you try, we will always, ALWAYS see through you. They enjoy taking the power and waiting waiting waiting until just when Dads think they are defeated. Then they point out the right way with vowels that are quadrupled as if they were talking with a deaf imbecile. STRAAAAAIGHT AHEEEEAD, then to the LEEEEEEEEEEEFT, okay, then RIIIIIIGHT. You’re welcome. And Dads say thanks politely and bow and you’re standing alongside and feeling how something is bubbling inside.’

Even with Willson-Broyles’s superlative translation, I can only imagine the effect of reading the book’s moving dissection of the politics of the Swedish language in the non-standard Swedish of the original. In English it is riveting, wise and sad. A towering achievement of a book. Thank you, Fredrika.

Montecore by Jonas Hassen Khemiri, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Knopf, 2011)