Translated from the Arabic by Miled Faiza and Karen McNeil
(Europa Editions, 2021)
“Tunisian cuisine,” we learn in The Italian, “is a mix of Berber, Andalusian, Turkish, and Italian dishes, and … others we don’t know about … a symmetrical mosaic of Mediterranean dishes.” And isn’t such a mélange only natural? After all, Tunisia sits “in the middle of the Mediterranean.” Joseph Brodsky observed, “geography blended with time equals destiny” (wryly, in his “Strophes” ); Shukri Mabkhout, in a first novel steeped in the Tunisian blend, dramatizes its volatility and toxicity.
Insofar as Americans know the country, they see it as a relatively safe space in the Islamic world. 10 years after the Arab Spring, Tunisia appears the lone light of democracy still aglow, if dimly. In The Italian, the plot hinges on an earlier upheaval, the bloodless coup of October 1987, which ushered in the benevolent dictatorship (more or less) that held sway until the revolutions of 2011. Despite this historical focus, the novel casts light on both future and past⎯ it achieves a vision broad enough to win the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction⎯ dramatizing a sweeping change that doesn’t appear to make much difference. Swapping heads of state may put the protagonists “in a state of ecstasy,” but soon enough it leaves them “in an ennui that fed off of ennui.”
Before ’87, to judge from what Mabkhout shows us, the previous “Great Leader” was already pretty laissez-faire. Granted, the primary setting is Tunis, an international capital, but the milieu nonetheless comes as a surprise, far from blindered Wahhabism. Among its major players, wine flows freely, women speak their minds, and the culture reveals all sorts of European influence. A struggle for greater liberation occupies most of the plot, following agitators of both genders, first as university leftists and then clambering for a place in journalism and academics. It’s a young person’s novel, in other words, one in which the turmoil spills over into the bedroom—mostly outside matrimonial norms.
The title character, Abdel Nasser, won his nickname thanks to his “Italian good looks.” Further blessed with a flexible intelligence and a family of good standing, it’s “el-Tayani” who whips up the multicultural meal described above. He’s cooking for a special occasion, an adulterous tryst, while the woman sits at the table in a “short satin nightgown … trimmed with lace.” As for what follows dinner, that unfolds in euphemism: “eyes closed, magically attracted to the bottom of the world … or else floating … like a Pegasus penetrating the sky.” Talk about a state of ecstasy! Rhetoric like that takes over every sex scene, in one of the qualities that feels least Western, instead recalling One Thousand and One Nights. Still, Mabkhout leaves no question about what’s going on, or about the stakes for both deceivers. His narrative is also a portrait of a failed marriage, the collapse of its promise; it recalls the highly sexed domestic burnouts of John Updike, and more than that sketches an intimate correlation with the lie of a “new Tunisia.”
The woman in the satin slip, not the Italian’s only extracurricular hookup but the one who matters most, is the jaded Najla. She knows her lover’s wife, Zeina—likes her, in fact—and she understands just what’s gone wonky in the marriage. Zeina first attracted Abdel as the most challenging of the student left-wingers, as smart as he and still more fiery. Lately, however, she’s been submerged in philosophy studies and academic bureaucracy. So too, though Zeina is “a lavish beauty,” and her kiss has “its own distinctive nectar,” she generally prefers “austerity,” a better fit with her ideals.
This sketch of the couple’s breakdown leaves out a lot, inevitably. Both Abdel and Zeina offer healing gestures, and they suffer from living in a country where “there’s only one source of truth…: the state.” The drama rises to a few great moments, such as a first kiss under police truncheons, a vivid emblem of the lovers’ quandary. Yet a set-piece like that also exemplifies why Najla, for all that she enjoys playing the sex kitten, wants no part of marriage. She may in fact express the novel’s calamitous essence:
a woman’s freedom in Tunisia was limited to the freedom to choose your master; it didn’t allow you to choose your life.
This oppression emerges as a second, dismaying surprise, following that of the country’s apparently open culture. In the process, the novel exposes how the status of Tunisian women has the same tangled roots as its cuisine, owing something to both conservative Islam and capitalist Euro-America. Most importantly, The Italian doesn’t neglect the toll taken on men. Its title character takes up far more space than anyone else, including the two other points on his lovers’ triangle. One early chapter lingers over his loss of virginity, at the hands of a neighbor, and while the woman is estranged from her imam husband—another victim of oppression—such material takes the story dangerously close to bildungsroman, The Sorrows of Young Abdel. The stink of a greater social rot becomes inescapable only when Zeina turns up.
The introduction of this tragic figure also raises a technical problem for this first-time novelist. Speaking of Abdel, Zeina is at once described as “a decisive turning point in his life in many ways.” Such generalizations prove a recurring drawback, giving away the game too early, even at the level of scene, and the problem doesn’t seem to be one of translation. Karen McNeil and Miled Faiza prove scrupulous, finding English equivalents for all sorts of intricacies, whether in the kitchen or the halls of government. Still, if Mabkhout suffers a few missteps, by and large he shows us great moves. His late revelation of just how young his battered principals are—the last we see of Zeina, she’s only 24—nearly knocked me out of my chair. At the center of the Mediterranean and everywhere else, few things hurt like seeing children betrayed.