[diary] 11 – tunisia

Sabah el-khir everyone !

After having struggled to read through The dispossessed last week, I must admit that I wanted something easier, shorter and lighter this time. It is mainly for this reason (and also because I will have to take it back to the library soon) that I picked in my book pile the short stories collection Nouvelles de Tunisie, published by Magellan et Cie. Knowing that I adored the first book I read from this publisher (Nouvelles de Madagascar, remember, here), I was really looking forward to try it again, and see if I’d be as impressed again. And in the end, it was close to the “coup de coeur”.


As I did for Madagascar, I will write about each story independently, before a quick sum up to give my general opinion about the book.

¤ Le Pape et le Barbu, by Yamen Manai ¤

The “pope of Tunis” is Slim Jib XII, an alcohol trafficker “watering his devotees” with liquor and expanding his influence like a Sicilian mafioso. The “bearded man” is Kamal al Montassar, a religiously radical man freed from prison during the revolution in January 2011. When the “bearded” discovers the “pope”, he starts a turf war in the red-light districts of Tunis, a war of the believer against the godless, a war between two views about life. This text, although it is very serious in its content, is presented with a quite original writing style – neutral but also tinted of a touch of dark humour. As a whole, this piece gives a chilling idea of the tensions born during the “Tunisian spring”, in a changing and introspecting country : a relevant beginning for the collection, and also a captivating text, both ironic and lucid.

¤ Les Fleurs de pois, by Iman Bassalah ¤

I think this one is my favourite story in the whole collection, and by far. Les Fleurs de pois tells the story of Hédi and “Gisèle”, settled in their little corner of the world at the foot of the djebel Ghorra’s mountains – they are both quite old, and plan to end their lives there. The relationship between these two characters is absolutely particular : it is actually a very strong friendship, patiently woven, filled with tenderness and on the edge of an undeclared love. The firm character of “Gisèle” is balanced by Hédi’s forbearance, giving their “couple” a touching stability, an intensity and a maturity that are reflected by their acts and their words as well. The strength of this text is for me its (great) sweetness : the atmosphere is comforting, the landscapes dreamlike and the notion of time is diluted through the pages. A really beautiful and delicate interlude under the Tunisian sun, that I recommend.

¤ Le Soleil au coeur, by Linah Ben Mhenni ¤

It is quite hard to describe what I thought about this short story : I liked the theme, and also the writing style… but just, not all the time. The text talks about the life and commitment of the author, “Lina-Leena-Linah-Leenah-La Nôtre(a variety of names used to describe her character) – and I learned after having read this that she has been one of the most mediatized voices of the Tunisian spring through her blog. It is a touching story, scarred by disease and though very luminous, full of hope and mind-openness. The text is sometimes using “she” and sometimes “I” to talk about Linah, alternating passages in which the author comes back on her life as a simple observer, and passages in which she makes comments. We follow her from her birth until the emergence of the Tunisian revolution, as she learns about life bit by bit and forges her personality, her convictions. The author’s style is sensitive and striking ; however, I found that the end of the text was less efficient than the rest, and I have been a little disappointed by the form of the last paragraphs. A nice story, but not much more for me.

¤ Mon TGM, by Monique Zetlaoui ¤

Big change of atmosphere and of concept for this antepenultimate story, that takes us to Tunisia for a genuine trip – even though the quite childlike beginning can be puzzling for a while. The story is that of the TGM, a trainline connecting Tunis, La Goulette and Marsa and thus crossing a wide portion of the country. Through the voice of this personified “small train”, the author allows us to discover a lot of different landscapes, associating each station to a paragraph and using them to include multiple references – to geography, mythology, and above all History. I liked the idea, and I found it really well realized… but maybe too much ? Indeed, even if I am used to search and find out about almost each cultural reference in the books I read for one book | one country, I think that the necessary effort here is way too cumbersome. I know nothing about Tunisian culture, and I spent my whole reading time wondering about what the words meant, or what was the background of the characters that were mentioned, or where were the places the train went to… It finally spoiled my experience of this book because I had to pause all the time to understand what was going on and what the author was talking about ! In the end, I am a bit disappointed because I haven’t been able to fully enjoy this text, notwithstanding its interesting writing style and promising subject.

¤ La Nouvelle, by Habib Selmi ¤

A very short story to conclude this book ! Indeed, this last text is only nine-pages long, and describes a brief but moving moment as the main character learns the death of one of his friends. I don’t have much to say about this piece, that I mostly found interesting for its focus on the feelings of the protagonist : his thoughts are realistic and also told in a quite unusual way, and this I appreciated. For me, the result is basically the account of a slice of life that relevantly and subtly presentes a diversity of feelings, but that hasn’t marked me that much in spite of its original treatment.

To be clear, I liked these Nouvelles de Tunisie but something lacked for me to love them. However, I have been convinced by the beauty of the writing styles – which is common to all the texts – and by the diversity of the themes developed in the book ; I would also like to have the opportunity to discover more of Iman Bassalah’s work. Furthermore, I am now definitely sure of the quality of Magellan et Cie’s collections of short stories : I can only invite you to pick up one and give it a try if you can. I, for certain, am looking forward to reading more of them ! To summarize, this was a nice read, fluent and small enough to be really quick, perfect to escape to Tunisia for a few hours.

> The next review will be about The First Well, by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.

> coll. (MANAI, Yamen / BASSALAH, Iman / BEN MHENNI, Linah / ZETLAOUI, Monique / SELMI, Habib) – Nouvelles de Tunisie, éditions Magellan et Cie.
> written listening to “Humat Al-Hima” .

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