Matthias Munsch reviews

Hassouna Mosbahi’s New Short Stories

Matthias Munsch reviews Der gr¸ne Esel. Tunesische Erz‰hlung [The Green Donkey – a collection of Tunisian tales], by Hassouna Mosbahi.
Translated from Arabic by Regina Karachouli.
Published in paperback by A1-Verlag, Munich, 1996, 180 pages.

Autumn last year the A1 publishing house in Munich published a volume of stories in German by Tunisian author Hassouna Mosbahi, born in 1950 into a large Bedouin family in the hinterland of Kairouan. As a teenager he was writing stories and won a Tunisian radio prize in 1968. Study visits to Paris, Madrid and London finally led him to Munich in 1985 where he has lived and worked ever since as a writer, journalist and literary critic and. In 1986 he was awarded the Prix National de la Nouvelle for his first volume of novellas published in Tunisia.

The Green Donkey collection of twelve short stories introduces the reader to the oriental world of Mosbahi’s childhood as well as to the life and the thoughts of someone living in voluntary exile.

Mosbahi writes sensitively of the sorrows and fears, dreams and longings, enjoyment, desires and poverty of people in a small village near the city of Kairouan. He describes events which cross through the arduous every day life of the villagers such as the bitter argument over the successor to the district council chief nominated by the dreaded government (“The Umda”) or the appearance of a mysterious bird which takes over the life of shopkeeper Milud and brings misfortune on his family (“The Bird of Misfortune”).

Mosbahi’s characters are extraordinary, like the woman filled with divine light as a child and who until her old age has auspicious dreams facing the same divine light again in her last hour (“The Last Dream”), or the foreign traveller who challenges the angry and stiff Imam with his wisdom and kindness (“The Kibla”).

The autobiographical story “The Koran and Lady Chatterley” and “Cinema, fever, first lust“ are the heart of the collection. In the former the I-narrator falls for the magic of the Koran in his early years and learns it by heart in the traditional Koran school. Mosbahi describes the unbelievable beauty of those “magic words“ and the great meaning which they had for the villagers. Even on his death-bed the father asked the son to recite from his favourite suras. The first book the young narrator reads after the Koran is a love story which leads him into romantic dream worlds.

The boy discovers the written word for himself and on going to secondary school regularly buries himself in books in the city’s library for hours. Coming across the novel Nagib Mahfouz’s The Midaq Street his literary perceptions are suddenly greatly sharpened. He understands that literature can be true-to-life and realistic, and is fascinated by this new world that opens up for him. From then on the boy devours great works of world literature, D.H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s lover striking him in particular.
In “Cinema, fever, first lust” the narrator indulges himself in memories of the long-gone days of his childhood, describing events as a dream-like flow of thoughts in which the author loses himself one afternoon. The first-person narrator describes being regularly afflicted by terrible bouts of fever and the powerful impact of seeing the first moving images of the cinema.

Hassouna Mosbahi does not consider himself to be a katib hadith, a modern author following fashionable trends. He is inspired by his own experiences, drawing ideas from the rich fund of memories seeing them like a magic lens that captures everything. “I let it lead me while it moves steadily over all those faces, days and scenes on which the dust of past times lies, transforming them into eloquent images full of life.”

Memories are also the link between the narrative worlds of the Orient and the Occident. In “The Right Place”, Mosbahi looks deeply into the soul of someone in exile. Longing for the beloved native country is the source of a bitter-sweet melancholy indulged in by the narrator in chilly and wet Germany. The euphoria at meeting friends once more after years of separation and in a foreign country with the resulting disappointment at recognising that old happiness does really belong to the past, drives the protagonist into a dull despair that tries to find relief in a longing for suicide.

Mosbahi’s stories are an ode to the strong emotions of his rich world of feelings. They are told sensitively and vividly in sensual, metaphorical language. This can best be seen in the story “Faces“ where the first-person narrator conjures up familiar faces before his inner eye during a long train journey, thereby passing through the stations of his life. This dream-like style of story-telling makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish between dream and reality and this too is picked up and made a central theme in “Truman Capote”. Mosbahi refers again to the problem of someone who, living in exile far from his own culture, fears losing his mother tongue and not being understood nor accepted by his fellow countrymen. Or was this all nothing but a bad dream?

The Green Donkey - Tunisian Tales is a collection of stories with a personal touch. Mosbahi’s clear enjoyment at story-telling makes it easy for the reader to follow him into his oriental world. It provides an impressive insight into the range of emotions of someone living in exile and the reader can happily discover along with the author that “human beings do not differ so tremendously, let alone nationality, language, religion and colour of skin.”

From Banipal 1 - February 1998

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