Looking at the Longlist: A Book Long Kept in Hussein al-Wad’s Drawer

Hussein al-Wad (Houcine El Oued) is the only Tunisian novelist on this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist. Al-Wad has long been a man of letters, but is a relative newcomer to novel-writing.

His-Excellency-the-Minister-by-Houssein-Al-WadAl-Wad has been primarily known as an academic, noted for his studies of classical Arabic literature. He arrived on the Arabic literary scene in 2011 when his debut novel, Scents of the City, won Tunisia’s prestigious Golden Comar award. The following year, he published his second novel, His Excellency the Minister. 

However, these novels weren’t written quickly. According to Kamel Riahi, al-Wad’s novels were written years ago, “but they remained hidden in the drawers, either due to despair of the reality of culture in Tunisia or as a result of fear of publication or appearing with a new identity after being known as a critic and a successful researcher.”

According to Riahi:

The novel narrates the story of someone who found an anonymous manuscript in the National Library. The failure to find its owner induced him to publish it, waiting that its owner would recognize it.

The manuscript includes a plea of one of the ministers who was accused by the regime after lawyers refused to defend him. In it, he wrote his story with his cousin, the corrupt prime minister and the servant of the old regime who led him to political doom through appointing him as a minister of natural resources and property, taking advantage of his low economic status as a primary school teacher.

The man turned from an opponent of the regime to a server and defender, and from an authentic labor unionist to a foe of the labor union which defended the rights of the downtrodden, to the extent that he described the comrades as ‘state haters’ after calling for a general strike.

The novel looks closely in more than 250 pages at the path of the degeneration of value in front of monetary influence, as if Houcine El Wad is bringing out the human subconscious to us, reminding of the French saying ‘a clean hand steals nothing.’

According to Riahi, al-Wad’s novel is part of a new genre in Tunisia, the “political novel.” But despite the book’s strong points, Riahi notes that the frame story doesn’t quite work, and also:

Despite its originality, seriousness, and its strong language that is sometimes humorous due to the insertion, for example, of daily speech and colloquial Tunisian, weak points appeared in it here and there and especially sometimes the reader’s feeling of boredom due to its slow events.

Keep reading:

Riahi’s full article, trans. Ali Znaidi.