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from the December 2021 issue

Shukri Mabkhout’s “The Italian”: Characters Caught in a Sea Change

Reviewed by Elaine Margolin

Shukri Mabkhout's award winning novel shows characters attempting to navigate a society in tumult.

One gets the uneasy feeling that 59-year-old Shukri Mabkhout has been holding himself back. It might be an automatic reflex, after decades of living under tyranny in Tunisia. He is currently the director of Manouba University — where he teaches Arabic, literature, and discourse analysis — and has produced many fine works of literary criticism. Mabkhout comes off as restrained in interviews. This benign demeanor is at odds with the raging passion and rebelliousness that infiltrate the pages of his phenomenal novel, The Italian, which was released in 2015. It won the Arab Booker Prize and was temporarily banned by the UAE for unspecified official reasons. Readers will immediately grasp why his book threatened the status quo. Mabkhout has produced a stunning literary work about how it feels to live in a society that is not free. 

Mabkhout makes no such assertions about his work and downplays any autobiographical links to his story. He paints himself as an observer of sorts, claiming that he has never joined forces with any political faction. Regarding the success of his work, he has said: “The novel, for me, is a way of looking into the chaos of society even if at first glance it appears stable and coherent. The chaos described in the book is not my chaos. It is a chaos of a society in transition from one regime to another.” Yet, it is impossible not to think that many of his finely drawn, haunting characters owe something to his experiences as an intellectual in a country whose government censors any material deemed not beneficial to the running of the state.

Modern Tunisia was established in 1956, after growing pressure for independence led to the end of French colonial rule. Habib Bourguiba led the anti-colonial movement, then kept himself at the head of an authoritarian regime for the next three decades, until he was unseated in a coup in 1987 by Ben Ali, who in turn remained in power until the Arab Spring erupted, in 2011. Both regimes were oppressive police states, in which surveillance, humiliation, and paranoia were everyday affairs for those who dared to step out of place. During the past ten years, Tunisia has slowly and unevenly been moving towards democratic reforms.

Mabkhout has his narrator introduce us to the protagonist of the novel, the firebrand and leftist college activist Abdel Nasser. The narrator describes himself as timid and obedient and confesses that his friendship with Nasser was peculiar, since they were nothing alike. He says that he was always Nasser’s best friend, but there is an edginess in the prose that suggests that their relationship was not always as harmonious as it seems. He eventually concedes that he was jealous of Nasser, who he describes as wild, impetuous, handsome, and filled with boundless energy. The narrator is impressed by Nasser’s brazenness but is unable to mimic him. He cares too much about fitting in and not disappointing his parents. The action is set in the 1980s, when the two of them spent hours reading Arab and French poetry, discussing Russian writers, and listening to music.

The narrator is present when Nasser meets Zeina and falls hopelessly in love with her. She is a mysterious woman from the countryside who seems to know everything. The two debate Mao, Lenin, Bordieuan sociology, and whether they have a chance at having a life together. Nasser is certain, but Zeina hesitates, traumatized by familial episodes of rape and uncertain whether she is capable of love. Mabkhout writes luscious romantic passages that are highlighted by the aching longings of a young man who thinks he has found his soul mate. There is something about Zeina that inspires uncertainty. Even his friends at college have trouble placing her in any sort of defined context. Nasser is overwhelmed by her “green eyes, a shade of dark green made even brighter and more beautiful by their prominence. Her eyes were full of mystery, anyone who tried to focus on them would notice nuances of green that varied by the weather‑one shade for sun, another for clouds, and by the openness of the space she was in.”  

Desperate to stay together despite mounting financial strain and Zeina's desire to keep studying, Nasser takes a job at a state-run newspaper so her education can continue. The work is eye-opening for Nasser, who is suddenly forced to make concessions that he had never previously considered. He resents the setup at the newspaper, particularly how everything is gone over by several censors. Over an alcohol-fueled lunch, his boss, Si Abdel Hamid, tells him that there is no legitimate journalism in Tunisia and that all of his colleagues at the newspaper are merely tightrope walkers. Hamid says, “There’s only one source of truth in Tunisia: the state. And these days, the interior ministry is the state, and the state is the interior ministry.” He continues: “The state is the biggest lie that humanity has ever created and then believed in. The state is me. And you. And the secretary who gives me her body at the office without me asking for it, because I represent the state in her eyes.”   

His boss instructs Nasser to write an article that welcomes Ben Ali and embraces the changes he promises. He warns Nasser to keep his language neutral and not ruffle any feathers. Nasser is at first confused, but his boss clafirifes that Ben Ali’s words are just a smoke screen. Nothing will really change. The back and forth between Nasser and Hamid takes on astonishing power. We can’t imagine the Nasser we've seen throughout the novel buckling under such constricting conditions, but what choice does he really have? Mabkhout shows us the overwhelming helplessness that ransacks the ambitious souls of those who live without liberty.

Nasser is shaken and begins to drink excessively. His relationship hangs by a thread. Disillusionment sets in, as Nasser ages. As I came towards the end of this tremendously provocative work, I kept thinking of Shukri Mabkhout’s decision to write this book. It took courage for him to have published The Italian. For surely he knew what he was trying to show us. And how dangerous it was to do so. 

© 2021 by Elaine Margolin. All rights reserved.

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