ArabLit: What I enjoyed throughout A Tunisian Tale was the teasing humor & the pacing (even when I was being teasingly manipulated). But the most beautiful craft, I thought, was his ending. I think the language — both with the humor and with the final section — was really important to pin down. Did you spend time getting the voice of the book? Where did it come from, do you think?
Max Weiss: A Tunisian Tale really is quite a unique piece of fiction in contemporary Arabic literature. It is a novel that challenges both thematic and stylistic conventions. Perhaps the most challenging dimension of A Tunisian Tale, for the translator, is its multivocality; this appears in multiple ways. First of all, and most obviously, there are two primary narrators–“The Son” and “The Mother”–who are connected by an unspeakable crime at the center of the plot. Keeping their voices distinct from one another and distinctive in their own right was perhaps the greatest challenge in translating the book.
At the same time, both of these narrators are fundamentally unreliable characters–this adds to what you nicely call its teasing manipulation, and was something I was almost immediately attracted to. To the extent that I managed to get a handle on keeping these two voices distinct, however, there is also a significant amount of dialogue involving a number of different characters; there are also inner monologues of peripheral characters represented through free indirect style that require subtle shifts in voice and diction throughout the novel, sometimes alternating within the span of a single page or chapter.
Finally, there is a stylistic tension between the “hard-boiled” story at the core, on the one hand, and the fantastical style employed towards the end. I don’t have a concrete answer regarding what cultural streams Mosbahi is drawing on exactly, but I think it is fair to assume that he is playing with both stereotypical notions of Scheherazadian “Arab” storytelling and certain folktales from various Tunisian, North African and Islamic traditions.
AL: What did you learn about the book as you translated it that wasn’t apparent on the first read?
MW: Upon reflection, and additional readings, I was most struck by just how dark this novel is. Ultimately, there is precious little redemption available to or desired by the characters. The theme of matricide is already horrific enough, of course, but there are moments throughout the novel–some rendered quite beautifully, and I hope this sense comes through in my English-language version–of such ghastly moral turpitude and social degeneration. There are characters (including the protagonist) who are sexually depraved, mentally unstable and morally suspect. I don’t think this should be taken to mean anything more or less than the skill and capacity Mosbahi displays in portraying human nature, social life and compelling characters in a highly realistic if bleak light. The dichotomy between the villain of the story and the hero of conventional folktales is quite striking. Another point that only came through upon multiple readings was the extent to which intertexts–an extended rumination on the cultural value of Cool Hand Luke, Arabic storytelling with explicit nods to the tales of Aladdin, local folklore–hold the novel together in interesting ways.
AL: Was there anything that particularly nettled or challenged you during the translation? Particular sections/passages/terms that spurred you to consult with Mosbahi or others?
MW: Certainly. Working on an extended piece of literary translation poses dynamic challenges concerning tone, voice and diction that can normally not be solved with any degree of success without consultation with others and with the author her/himself. Mr. Mosbahi was quite helpful in clarifying points regarding the use of Tunisian dialects that I was not familiar with, and local idioms that are culturally specific.
AL: Did you ponder at all over the word slum?
MW: You know, the publisher of the Arabic version, Hikaya Tunisiyya, included the term in their original promotional materials, and at a certain level I felt powerless to change it. What I dislike about the term is its a pejorative social or cultural connotation. But what I appreciate about it has to do with its universal themes that are of far broader significance, thinking about a world with rising inequality that is expressed in umistakable economic, social but also spatial bifurcations. One other advantage of the term is that it forces the reader to take a hard look at what the living conditions for migrants (and immigrants) actually is; rather than using more euphemistic expressions such as “temporary housing” or “informal settlements” or “extra-legal buildings.” By contrast, “slum” evokes the desperation and multiple levels of degradation I mentioned earlier, which is one of the novel’s defining motifs.
AL: I suppose the reception of the book has been somewhat marginalized because it doesn’t “predict” the events in Tunisia of December 2010, nor elections, nor discuss hegab, etc. There is social criticism here, but perhaps not of the sort readers would now be expecting?
MW: To a certain extent. Gauging reception is a tricky enterprise, and not all novels must be judged according to their predictive or even descriptive qualities as social text. Be that as it may, readers of Arabic literature (in translation) may be inclined to seek out alternative forms of contemporary Arabic literary (and other cultural) production.
The absence of any explicit or highly presentist political engagement allows for Mr. Mosbahi to fudge the boundaries between the realistic and the allegorical in a way that is engaging. As I already suggested, to be sure, one might come to pessimistic conclusions about the potential for social or political change upon first reading this book. Yet there is unstinting criticism of the conditions of poverty, state failure, moral turpitude and other attendant consequences of authoritarian rule, even if the latter is hardly dealt with in explicit or programmatic terms. There is also a scathing critique of gender norms and gendered relationships that I found quite powerful. The question of the veil, to respond to one theme you mention that is of tremendous consequence for matters of gender politics, seems to lose its salience when compared to the prospect of wallowing away in urban poverty amidst a fraying social fabric, or, still worse, the prospect of falling prey to moral sanction and even murderous domestic violence.
Max Weiss is Assistant Professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, specializing in the social, cultural, and intellectual history of the modern Middle East.