Un après-midi dans le désert [An Afternoon in the Desert] (review)

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In Un après-midi dans le desert, Tunisian author Mustapha Tlili returns us to the desert landscape of his childhood evoked in his 1988 novel, Montagne du lion [Lion Mountain]. This isolated village in the midst of the empty central Tunisian steppe, a place once known for its gardens watered by the Oued El-Kébir, serves as a mirror for the larger forces of history that have turned paradise into a living hell. As with the earlier novel, the narration here counterpoints the perspective of a distant observer and the immediacy of the voices whose stories must be told. Tlili's own relationship to his natal village, Feriana, which he left as a youth, echoes this play of alienation and intimacy. His mother tongue is Arabic, his creative language is French, and his analytical work as a former UN official, and currently as founder and director of the Center for Dialogues, happens in English. He is "split between cultures," "a citizen of the world," and thus bears witness. [An Afternoon in the Desert] demands a lot of its readers. The stories of villagers — Sam the postman, Horia descendant of the exiles from al-Andalus and her two sons, Little Brother the revolutionary, the older brother called the American, and Hafnawi the Bedouin — are told against the deeper historical background of French colonization, the destruction of WWII, and the advent of local, post-independence dictatorships. The text opens on one July afternoon in 1992 when the aging postmaster Sam is compelled to recall the past as he prepares to do the end of the month round, reading letters to the old, the sick, the left behind, who have received remittances from children living in exile in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and other far-flung parts of the globe. This July afternoon, however, letters have come, out of the blue, from the former French school-master Bermann to Hafnawi, the illiterate Bedouin who had stolen his wife, and from the revolutionary "Little Brother" to his childhood pal, Sam — Sam who has promised that, should such a letter ever arrive, he would take it first to Imam Sadok, which he now regrets given its Pakistani stamp and its content which may end up sentencing Hafnawi to death for adultery committed so long ago. Sam's centrality as a sort of village "public reader" of all these lives causes an aging Sam to ruminate on the fate of the village while he waits for the suffocating heat of the afternoon to diminish. The sorrows are myriad: the death of Horia, 15 years earlier, caused by her battle against an imposed modernization and the itchy trigger-fingers of raw recruits; before that, the midnight arrival of Little Brother, radicalized and cold, to say good-bye to his mother; before that the arrival in 1947 of a starved, 17-year-old Hafnawi whose people have died in the famine, and his subsequent accommodation into the lives of the French settlers who will leave when independence comes, an independence that brings a uranium mining scheme that poisons the village by drying up the stream that supported them all. These layered time frames and entwined life stories are further complicated when, on page 44, we discover that there is an outside narrator who has collected all these tales: "in actual fact, he [Sam] was afraid, as he confessed to me years later ..." Readers must wait until the final, four-page epilogue to be introduced to this witness who has written the story. Given all this narrative apparatus, some critics have thrown up their hands, claiming that the text is unwieldy and the prose uneventfully traditional. Others have questioned Tlili's choice to write in French, and still others his refusal — given his own experience as a young student with dedicated French teachers — to condemn French colonization on every count. Brought up among languages, across epochs, and between cultures, Tlili has created a complex, if not perfect, narrative that reflects his circumstances as an observer of and actor on the events of his time. His reading of people's motives and his judgment of how they treat one another is wonderfully nuanced. In an interview, he noted...

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