Read African Writers: A Tunisian Tale, by Hassouna Mosbahi

A Tunisian TaletunisiaAn adult son has committed an unspeakable crime and narrates from his jail cell, “narrow as a tomb, and just as cold.” (The crime is so unspeakable, in fact, that it isn’t revealed until three-quarters of the way through the book.) A mother narrates from beyond the grave. In this dark novel with dual tellers, Tunisian writer Hassouna Mosbahi illustrates — in A Tunisian Tale, published in Tunisia in 2008 and translated to English by Max Weiss — what happens when trust breaks down completely in communities and families. There is a smattering of friendship and love here, set against an avalanche of gossip, backbiting, and betrayal.

Here are a few areas that the novel illuminated for me:
  • On welfare smoothing over time: “People in my country say that it’s better for a person to live as a rooster for just one day than to be a chicken for an entire year.”
  • On education and child marriage: “What else could I do after getting kicked out of school for failing the elementary certificate exam twice in a row? What else could I do? I was past the age of maturity and on the verge of getting married. In our tiny dirt-poor village a young girl in a situation such as mine had no other choice but to consent to the way things are. If she tried to escape, to rebel against those stern rules, narrow-minded people would turn her into an ugly tale that they would talk about in private and in public. By that point it would be likely for one of her male relatives to lose his head and shoot her or stab her, washing away the shame, defending the impugned honor, as people used to say in such circumstances.“
  • More on child marriage: “I won’t hide from you that when I was that age I was untouched, fresh, like a flower that had started to open up, but living in permanent horror. That horror becomes even sharper and fiercer the more I thought about how, one day, one of those men I hated and who I’d sooner die than let his flesh touch mine was going to come and, amid the ululations and the songs, the beating of drums and the sounds of flutes, and the firing of the horsemen’s rifles, bring me back to his house, close all the doors and take me as he got all puffed up like the winter wind and his family stood outside on the doorstep, ready to open fire in celebration of his masculinity’s victory.“
  • On one character’s obsession with the film Cool Hand Luke: “Listen, Alaa al-Din, movies aren’t real life and life isn’t a movie.” (This line reminded me of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song The End of the Movie.)
  • On urbanization: “Dreaming of a better life, they quickly found themselves having lost everything, and they remained lost creatures without origins or roots. Under the pressures of everyday life, its twists and turns and its raging storms, these creatures gave up all their human feelings and values. In those ugly neighborhoods where they piled up, they resorted to every way and every means, including crime and deception, lying and hypocrisy, and vice of every type and kind, in order to secure their daily bread.”
  • On external validation: “What mattered to me most of all wasn’t men, but the feeling that I was still beautiful and attractive.”
  • On jobs and women’s empowerment: “But what should I do, then?” “Find yourself a job!” “A job?” “That’s right. Only a job will let you laugh at your life, as you must.”
  • On talking to oneself: “The number of people who had started talking to themselves in our country had increased in a shocking manner over the last few years… My friend Aziz told me that this phenomenon could be traced to the fact that the people had lost faith in all forms of media, and even in their nearest and dearest relatives. Therefore they no longer trust anyone but themselves, which is whom they turn to whenever they have to deal with a private or a public problem, so it became normal for us to see people talking to themselves as they walked down the street or strolled through public gardens, as they rode the light rail and other public transportation or sat in front of the piles of folders stacking up on their desks.

Here are the takes of a few other readers:
  • Ghada Alatrash, Al Jadid: A Review & Record of Arab Culture and Arts: “A succinct and skillfully written novel that takes its readers into the darkest corners of Tunis and of the human mind.”
  • William Armstrong, Hurriyet Daily News: “a raw, claustrophobic book about frustrated ambitions, urban desperation and hopelessness. The narrative is brilliantly paced, with an almost Shakespearean sense of characters embroiled in tragic situations where fate beats towards an inescapable conclusion.”
  • Michele Levy, World Literature Today: “A Tunisian Tale crosses genres. Its clipped, bleak tone evokes a noir, while realism inheres in its portrait of Tunisia and allusions to contemporary political movements… Yet it most resembles parable, showing how socially constructed cultural codes can transform society into a Kafkaesque penal colony.”
  • Susannah Tarbush, Banipal: Magazine of Modern Arab Literature: “Mosbahi’s highly readable novel has potentially wide appeal for readers of English. It can be seen as a psychological thriller, a sample of ‘North African Noir’. It also shows the sense of alienation and hopelessness and the perceived inequalities in Tunisia on the brink of the revolution that began in 2010.”

This is book #29 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.
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