The spark at the center of Hassouna Mosbahi’s short novel, “A Tunisian Tale,” is a human immolation. As in the real Tunisia, this death by burning launches a thousand stories. The book also echoes revolutionary Tunisia in its reference to Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi’s poem, “If, one day, the people desire to live …”
But “A Tunisian Tale,” published in Arabic in 2008, is not a novel of social change or cultural brightening. Mosbahi’s book does not provide an arena for people to stand up for their rights.
“Ahh,” one of the protagonists says after recalling Shabi’s poem, “that time seems so distant now …”
Everything in “A Tunisian Tale” circles around a single, mysterious death. The dark novel leads us both toward and away from this central event, but never gives us any quarter for hope. The story, after all, is told by one protagonist who’s about to die and another who’s already dead. But what is singular about Mosbahi’s novel, translated by Max Weiss, is that while it paints a bitterly bleak picture of human nature and society, it still makes for a witty, teasing and delightful read.
The world is dark and disgusting and humans are irredeemable, the book tells us. But, stories! Ah, stories are another thing entirely.
The book is narrated in turns by “The Mother” and “The Son,” who are chained together by their unhappy relationship. Both are eager to tell their version of events, and to put themselves at the center of the page. Neither comes off very well. Both have had difficult lives — crushing sexism, a dead father, poverty, repressive gossip, narrow possibilities for escape — but neither meets this ugly world with a heart of gold.
Mosbahi conceals and reveals by turns, and the reader hurries through the book to find out what crime young Alaa has committed, how it happened and why he did this infamous deed. The two narrators — particularly the son — play around with the reader. Information is placed right under our noses, but then it’s whisked away: “But the time for talking about this matter hasn’t arrived yet …” Mosbahi’s pacing is excellent, and this book holds its reader ever at the edge of his seat.
But “A Tunisian Tale” is more than a dark thriller. Go on; keep reading.