Al-Taliani (The Italian) by Shukri Mabkhout, Dar Al-Tanweer, Tunis, 2014. pp.342
In his Arabic Booker 2015-winning debut novel The Italian, Tunisian writer Shukri Mabkhout presents a highly conventional, even banal tale based on a "boy meets girl, girl lives with boy, girl leaves boy" theme, with only one difference – the boy is leftist and the girl is extreme leftist.
The novel, which is divided into twelve titled chapters, starts with a thrilling event in which Abdel-Nasser, the novel's protagonist and namesake, engages in a quarrel with the neighbourhood's imam while burying his father underground. The rest of the novel is narrated in a tedious flashback until it gives the reason for Abdel-Nasser's heinous act.
The novel's narrator is an unnamed neighbour and a very close friend of Abdel-Nasser. The same narrator was used in order to uncover the female protagonist Zeina's thoughts and behavior, being her colleague and confidant as well.
Moreover, this narrator was like the old Greek chorus by commenting on the action with a conservative voice. It was a silly ploy because many a time this narrator used to pop up suddenly only to remind us of his presence long after he was forgotten.
Early on, we learn Abdel-Nasser is known as the Italian due to his dashing appearance resembling Italians thus "every woman he meets must kneel" before his incredible handsomeness, to quote the novelist. His womanising habits stopped for a while when he married Zeina only to resume with his brother's sister-in-law, and more devastatingly with his wife's closest friend Naglaa.
Signs of rebelliousness and leadership demonstrated since puberty continue with him on enrolling at the university where he becomes a leftist student leader who couldn't out of duty but fail year after year so as not to enable the Islamists to dominate the Faculty of Law student's union.
Then enters Zeina, an Amazigh (Berber) firebrand orator whose enchanting beauty she insists on repressing. He was assigned to co-opt her or else he must eliminate her according to instructions from the party's leader. Failing to persuade her to stop attacking the leftist students, he tries to protect her and himself.
Afterwards, they fell in love and got married, each on his/her own terms. He married her to secure her a place in the capital Tunis to pursue her studies as well as being in love with her. On the other hand, she had a one-track mind, pursuing her academic career until getting her PhD degree while asserting many a time that what links her to her husband is just paper.
It transpires that she was a rape victim and the author shows us how pitiably backward and poor her village was. Thus, the author wants to justify her ruthless ambition, which led her eventually into the arms and shelter of an old French intellectual in Paris and forgetting all about her academic degree.
Mabkhout draws parallels which were unconvincing, for example he likens Zeina's brief phase as a loving and caring wife as the propaganda which the Tunisian president at the time, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, used to attract Tunisians’ sympathy while nothing actually changes at all.
Another example is when Zeina's mother’s death coincides with the removal of President Habib Bourguiba in a bloodless coup d'état. The point of no return in their marriage is when Abdel-Nasser knew that his wife had an abortion without informing him of her pregnancy in the first place. Then her insistence on a divorce after she was failed in her PhD exams by one of the professors as a punishment for not yielding to his advances.
The author used character names to convey ironies such as the name of Abdel-Nasser, who was born in 1960, as an echo of the revolutionary tide of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser, and tried fruitlessly to revive socialism in his faculty in the eighties with limited success. He chose the name of Salah Al-Din (Saladin), Abdel-Nasser's elder brother, and made him an international economics expert who persuades the Tunisian government to embrace the IMF's policies of liberalisation of the economy.
Mabkhout also chose the name of Jeneina (a garden in Arabic) for a licentious woman with a body full of fragrances and insatiable desire like a garden that needs to be irrigated to blossom. He hinted at the end of the novel to the wife of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in the form of a minor female character who worked as a hairdresser and a pimp who has the highest connections with the president himself. It is well known that Ben Ali's wife Leïla was a hairdresser and was his mistress before their marriage.
It was really striking to see that Mabkhout portrayed Othman, a state security police officer, in an extremely friendly, even benign light. He was like a big brother to Abdel-Nasser (during the long absences of Salah Al-Din in Genève) when he and Zeina were arrested. He forgave him for stealing an important notification from his desk, advised him not to abandon Zeina and pulled some strings for Zeina’s academic education.
In the author's eyes, the above mentioned is justified since Othman and Abdel-Nasser belong to the same neighbourhood. The author also displayed a bitter anatomy of the Tunisian Left. Leftists are plagued with fragmentation and aloofness from the masses which they claim to represent while immersing themselves in futile theorisations and analyses.
One flagrant sign of the leftists' hypocrisy is Abdel-Nasser's incessant accusations of Salah Al-Din that he works in an organisation that sucks poor people's blood, yet this didn't prevent him from relying on his brother's financial support for years on end. It goes without saying for a Booker winning novel, the Islamists were the bête noire throughout.
Mabkhout reveals almost at the end of the story the reason of Abdel-Nasser's attack. He was almost sexually abused by the impotent imam, Jeneina's husband. One of the disastrous weaknesses of this story is the last 18 pages in which the author transfers the action to the amours of a minor character (Jeneina) with no dramatic significance whatsoever.