By Abdeddayem Sallami
Translated by Ali Znaidi
In 1966 Sonallah Ibrahim published his little novel The Smell of it and said about it “it is a novel that is on the edge of the autobiography” because although it tells the experience of a Leftist intellectual, we can find in it an identification with his experience as he left the prison after five years and he was thrown into the street without a shelter or a wage.
In the street he observes the conflict of three philosophies triggering the novel’s events: The philosophy of the Nasserite state which raises slogans against imperialism and makes the citizens hope for gaining wars and overcoming hunger, the philosophy of street which tends to individualism, showing off, and transgression against the system of social values, particularly the value of altruism, and the intellectual’s utopian philosophy which is based upon the dreams of Socialism, and the realisation of social justice for everyone.
We now remember the novel of The Smell of it which was not predestined to circulate among readers the way his The Star of August did because we found in the scent of its events and its modern artistic styles a persistence in keeping to linger in the mind after the passing of more than fifteen years after the date of its reading.
Perhaps among the causes of subdividing this rememberance is the inexistence of “scent” in most of the Tunisian novels which we examined with all our senses and reading alertness. Despite the variety of novel titles during the last two decades and the novelists’ diversification of the advertising styles to the point the advertising act became more pleasing than their novels, most of those novelistic publications remained lacking the minimum of life’s signs. They even were almost completely to be linguistic corpses waiting for festering in a bookshelf or in a pavement despite the beautiful dedications in them.
Although we find some exaggeration and generalisations in one of Dr Mohamed El Bardi’s university lessons stating that there is no Tunisian novel, and even we find a geographical concept that narrows down the meaning of literature, the status quo of the Tunisian narration permits us to say that there is a novel in it, yet it does not go beyond the personal endeavours.
They are endeavours which are not governed by the rule of “who worked hard and succeeded” because they are pertaining to the field of creation and creation does not accept relativisation or negligence because all through a century the corpus of the novel in Tunisia did not exceed 400 publications, and even the publications of the same novelist remained scarce and quality relied on the principle of “the cock’s egg” [something that happens once in a lifetime] which made most of the readers know only one novel of those novelists.
Perhaps we ascribe this to the fact that we find “extremism” in some of the new Tunisian novelists in their riding of the wave of narrative experimentation and their endeavour to go beyond its rules which were set by the theories of Western critics. This made their novels full of voidness, the chaos of meanings, and the gratuitousness of events to the point they became devoid of a narrative flesh or a semantic scent and intending to virtually say everything, but in fact they say nothing.
To put an end to the generalisation that states the inexistence of a Tunisian novel, it is sufficient to remember novels that achieved the essence of narration and formed, though scarce, a narrative accomplishment that gave its owners the right of the outstanding presence in the Arab novelistic scene, for instance, Slaheddine Boujah’s The Slave Trader (Al-Nakhkhas), Ibrahim Dargouthi’s The Dervishes Return to Exile (Addarawish Yaoudouna ila al Manfa), Mohamed El Bardi’s Henna, Habib Selmi’s Bayya’s Lovers (Ushaq Bayya) and The Scents of Marie-Claire (Rawaih Marie-Claire), Abou Bakr Ayadi’s The Last of the Subjects (Akhir Arraiyya) and The Time of the Dinar ( Zamanou Addanous), and Mohamed Ali Yousfi’s Sun Tiles (Shams Alqaramid). These are novels that relied upon a great awareness of the value of the storytelling act, committed themselves to most of its artistic rules, paid attention to the people’s status quo, and revealed what was unspoken about in the daily life with all its colours.
Originally appeared in Alarabonline 23/08/2012 by Abdeddayem Sallami.
You can read the original text in Arabic here.
Translated from Arabic by Ali Znaidi.