In a recent post I wrote about a novel set in the mid-1950s Tunisia, just as the country was gaining independence from France. The Scorpion was written by the Tunisian-French writer Albert Memmi and was first published in France in 1969. Tunisia had gained independence from France in 1956 but promptly became one of the most corrupt and repressive “democracies” on the planet. That lasted until 2011, when a street vendor immolated himself at a protest and the President ultimately fled the country after 23 years in power, launching the Arab Spring. Tunisia subsequently became a more normal democracy but in 2015 the country was hit by several horrendous terrorist attacks that killed scores of foreign tourists. It continues to be a democracy today but is currently struggling with incidents where religion and free speech intersect.
In response to my post of The Scorpion, a Vertigo reader suggested in a comment that I should read This Tilting World, a novel by the Tunisian-French writer Colette Fellous. This Tilting World, first published in France in 2017, takes place just after those terrorist attacks of 2015. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, has just learned that a very close friend has collapsed and died of a heart attack while sailing in the Mediterranean. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists while on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba. The narrator is in a friend’s villa, writing the novel that we are reading, wondering what to do, what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back briefly over parent’s lives and her own childhood in Tunisia and then at her more complex relationship to the country of her youth.
This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.
Although her family had been in Tunisia for generations, they were of European descent, and as she ruminates on her past, she begins to realize that there were really two Tunisias—an Arab Tunisia and a Tunisia for those of French and European descent. “We did not live so happily together,” she now sees, “we lived side by side, we tolerated each other, but only up to a point, up to a point and no further.” When her father finally decided to move the family to France sometime after Tunisian independence, he gave his tractor repair store to his Tunisian employees and walked away. Now, decades later, with terrorists trying to scare tourists out of Tunisia, the narrator realizes that once again “there was no longer a place here for the ‘foreigners’ we had become since choosing France.”
The brilliance of Fellous’s book lies in the vivid imagery and the intimacy of her self-examination. For example, take this admission:
And then there was the city. The battered sidewalks, the window bars on dilapidated buildings that were never repaired, the whitewash that peeled off in great flakes during the winter, the doors swollen with moisture, the strange skin diseases we saw on passers-by, leprosy, smallpox, bonnets worn to cover lice infestations, the torn dress of the enormous beggar women on the synagogue steps, surrounded by her great baskets and her dazzlingly white dog for which she knitted multicolored coats; that’s all she did: he was well dressed while she was in rags. All of this was strange and did not match up with my schoolbooks in which the poems and great texts bestrode the centuries, marked and measured them: each era had its own language and each of them was stunning, astonishing, the paper smelled so good, I wanted to sink into them, I wanted to be of books, and far from what I saw all around me. . .
. . . I chose pleasure, I chose love. Sensations, stories, shades of meaning. Now I think I got it all wrong. I should have been harder, sharper, more violent. I should have fought some other way.
This Tilting World reads like a memoir written in a moment of turbulence. Time is disjointed and memories of her deceased friend and her childhood keep intruding. The French title, Pièces détachées, or “loose pieces,” is probably a better description of the book. Either way, it has a sense of immediacy that I found very appealing.
There are a dozen photographs in the book, both in color and black-and-white. Most of the photographs suggest the personal attraction that Tunisia has to her—a sunset, a beach, flowers, a harbor, etc. There’s also one romantic film still of James Mason and Ava Gardner embracing on a beach (from Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) that is meant to recall the era when cities like Tunis once had a hundred movie theaters. Fellous, it should be noted, is an exhibiting photographer and so the photographs in the book are very well done. The book closes on a self-reflexive image.
Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis.