By Günther Orth
© Qantara.de 2015
Translated by Ron Walker
"The Italian", the debut novel by Tunisian writer Shukri al-Mabkhout, lays bare the mechanisms of control and censorship in operation during the Ben Ali era. It is a worthy winner of this year's "Arab Booker" prize, says Günther Orth.
The fact that the 2015 Arab Booker prize went to the unknown Tunisian author Shukri al-Mabkhout, was probably as much of a surprise to the sponsors of the award in the Persian Gulf as to anyone else. Initially on a list of banned books in the United Arab Emirates, the prize-winning novel was suddenly granted a hasty reprieve in order to spare further embarrassment. With a whiff of the forbidden to help it on its way, there was then even more curiosity to discover what it was that had been deemed worthy of censorship for a section of the Arab reading public.
The first thing we learn from the novel is that handsome men are apparently nicknamed Italians ("Tilyani" in colloquial Arabic) in Tunisia. Appropriately enough then, it is the handsome "Italian" heartbreaker Abdel Nasser, who makes such a striking entrance into proceedings on the first page, when, during his father's funeral and in front of the assembled mourners, he delivers a savage and bloody beating to the presiding imam at the graveside. The reasons for this frenzied attack by the avowed atheist initially remain an awkward puzzle to those who witness it.
In search of inner peace
We get to know the main protagonist retrospectively through flashbacks. Originally a radical left-wing utopian and activist, he learns gradually over the years to come to terms with the situation in Tunisia; he is less successful, however, when it comes to finding his own inner peace.
The narrative spans the period from the final years of Habib Bourguiba, founder of the Tunisian Republic, to the consolidation in 1990 of the presidency of the man who ousted him in a coup in 1987, Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali. The assuredness and detailed accuracy with which the discourses and conflicts of this short period in the homeland of the Arab revolutions of 2011 are rendered means the reader is given a real sense of the approaching revolution.
Life in the Ben Ali police state: With his account of the mechanisms operating during the Ben Ali era, Mabkhout renders his country a great service at the same time as providing us with a novel that is part universally intelligible documentary on state security and part relation of the depths plumbed by protagonist Nasser in his amatory entanglements
The fact that Mabkhout chooses not to write about the subsequent and well-documented expulsion of Ben Ali during the Tunisian uprising is by no means a weakness in the book. It is likely to be some time yet until we witness the Arab roman à clef on the events of 2011. The upheavals in the Arab world have not yet run their course and Tunisia too, in spite of its democratic progress, is not yet out of the woods.
With his account of the mechanisms operating during the Ben Ali era, Mabkhout renders his country a great service at the same time as providing us with a novel that is part universally intelligible documentary on state security and part relation of the depths plumbed by protagonist Nasser in his amatory entanglements. It is an uncompromisingly modern and entirely atypical Arab novel – as most Arab novels currently are in fact – something that hardly anyone in the West has noticed yet.
Language like a fine vintage wine
The novel's strength comes from the atmosphere the narrative conveys, from the development of the main character, but also from the mannerisms, and sometimes pedantry, of the narrator, who doesn't hold back in his use of detail, of metaphor or intertextual references. This lack of reserve is especially evident in his liking for elaborately expansive but always precisely structured sentences. His use of Arabic has a rare quality, like a fine vintage wine, yet the use of regional expressions and vocabulary makes it clear that there has been no attempt to deny the special flavour of its North African setting.
At university, Nasser becomes one of the leaders of the radical leftist student movement. The strength of the rising Islamist movement and persecution at the hands of the state authorities, mean that the movement will remain socially marginalised. But, in a radical movement, the movement is the world, and into this world comes Zeina, a philosophy student from the countryside who becomes a spokesperson for the group. Nasser becomes infatuated with the Berber beauty and with her abstract but always thoroughly logical intellectual digressions – they debate Bourdieuian sociology, or such topics as the relative merits of Mao and Lenin as leaders, or misguided losers, of the hoped-for world revolution.
Revolutions from the barrel of a gun: in a radical movement, the movement is the world, and into this world comes Zeina, a philosophy student from the countryside who becomes a spokesperson for the group. Nasser becomes infatuated with the Berber beauty and with her abstract but always thoroughly logical intellectual digressions
Nasser and Zeina spend a lot of time discussing whether or not they are in love with one another. Zeina is sceptical. It transpires that she has been the victim of a brutal rape, with her father or her brother as the main suspects. In order to be able to teach at a university after graduating, the couple has to marry (they decide on a civil marriage). Almost predictably, they become increasingly, if painfully slowly, alienated from one another.
The lesser of two evils
Nasser takes a job as journalist with a state-controlled newspaper, a move which means that he can no longer maintain his independence and censorship will demand its humiliating toll. For many intellectuals, however, cooperation with the regime begins to appear the lesser of two evils in the face of the increasing Islamist threat. Even the once radical Zeina becomes an admirer of the "saviour" Ben Ali.
While Zeina prepares for her admission exam, Nasser sets to work on seducing her cousin Najla. The result is the second of the novel's great love stories, and one of the longest, most poetic and most daring love scenes in modern Arab literature. The delicate love triangle that ensues is inevitably doomed to fail.
As the atmosphere in Tunis changes, law and order breaks down and the Islamists draw ever greater numbers of supporters to their new mosques. Zeina discovers that she has failed her exam. Another failure, this time to convince the university authorities that this was the consequence of her refusal to have sex with a professor, is the final devastating humiliation that convinces her to turn her back on Tunisia. In Paris she takes an older lover, and although he is devoted to her, it also means the end of her dream of an academic career. For Nasser, meanwhile, it is the end for his last hope of finding fulfilling love.
Following the failure of his affair with surrogate lover Najla, Nasser's behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre. His latest victim is a young student whom he wants to hold on to with promises of a future career. The conquest, however, fails miserably when he remembers a scene from his childhood, one that also explains the graveyard scene from the beginning of the book.
It is the impossibility of love as well as the prevailing political and social conditions that ultimately seal the protagonists' failure. In winning this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Shukri al-Mabkhout's novel "The Italian" got its richly deserved reward.