As I waited this morning on news of a rumored coup in Tunisia, I thought I’d re-read Kamel Riahi, who says of his stories that they reflect “the lives of the poor [in Tunisia], the homeless, the shoe polishers, الشطّار, young criminals, prostitutes, crushed employees, sailors and street peddlers.”
Yes, I realize that you can’t understand the goings-on of the “real” world by reading fiction. Nonetheless, the “untameable Tunisian volcano,” as Riahi is described in the preface to Emerging Arab Voices, has a fresh and interesting literary voice. And what else am I to do? I’m sure my political analysis would be dreadful.
Both Riahi’s novels, The Scalpel and The Gorilla, deal with social unrest sparked by an individual’s actions. In The Scalpel, a motorcyclist is slashing women’s backs. Two marginalized characters who are investigating the case—a black man and a white man—disappear on the same day in the city.
The English-language excerpt of The Scalpel published in Beirut39: New Writing from the Arab World is most interesting for its absurd newspaper reports and counter-reports, sheikhs claiming that the slashed women must’ve been loose, protests in solidarity held in Mexico, statements from the World Health Organization, and for a public argument on the matter between two academics.
Riahi’s newest novel, The Gorilla (translated by Peter Clark), begins:
About one o’clock in the afternoon. The wind is busy rolling along some beer-can that has been drained of its contents in the deserted street. A massive silence links the arch of the Sea Gate with the enormous clock-tower where Muhammad V Street crosses Avenue Habib Bourguiba. The tranquility of the deserted capital city is shattered by its well-known nutter: a suspicious man is circling the tower for the last time, before detaching him from people, warning them of the poison of the hands of passing time above.
(Ignore, if you will, the slight pronoun/actor confusion in the English, the hyphenation of beer can, and so on.)
Soon, ambulances and police cars sound. People come out into the street. Something is happening at the clock tower:
A small remote figure, apparently no bigger than a finger, is climbing the clock-tower with the speed of a cockroach.
This sets off a chain reaction:
Nervous police surround the crowds. Auxiliary police run in all directions talking into their radio sets. Gesturing nervously they ask the man up there to come down from up there; it is out of bounds.
The suggestive, allegorical nature of it—the characters of The Leader, the gorilla—and the back and forth between the “gorilla’s” past as a bastard child of the Leader and his present atop the clock tower make for compelling, if sometimes jagged reading. Riahi also has some excellent descriptive moments:
A broadcaster with a prominent forehead wears a spotted black tie. He opens his eyes wide open.* He allows a period of silence during which those viewers who have known this man’s distinctive style hold their breaths. He then speaks in sombre tones,…
*Don’t blame Riahi for the repetition of “open,” which is not suggested by the Arabic.
More about Riahi:
A somewhat awkwardly footnoted story of Riahi’s, “Youssef,” published in the Arab Washingtonian. Translation by Cécile Gault.
And Tunisian literature (in English):