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La Nuit de l’étranger
by Habib Selmi
Translated from the Arabic by Evelyn Larguèche & Françoise Neyrod
Actes Sud, Paris 2008, pbk, 190 pp,
The Small Spaces of Migration
Habib’s Selmi’s La Nuit de l’étranger [Night of the Stranger] belongs to a growing opus of recent literature that is set in hidden spaces of migration – those small, unseen places that simultaneously harbor and imprison. In Selmi’s novel, this small place is a shabby, impersonal hotel room in an immigrant neighborhood in Paris from where the narrator reflects on the people he has met, tells their stories and ultimately faces his isolation. Selmi’s novel reveals the psychological alienation of being a foreigner in France; however, even more importantly, it examines the bonds and limits of intimacy that develop between men and women who share this condition. He himself is from Tunisia and has lived in Paris for a number of years, writing his works in Arabic. He has published six novels and two collections of short stories.
The novel begins with an insomniac narrator who turns to his address book to give him comfort in the middle of the night. The address book functions as yet another small space in the condition of the migrant; this portable space of memory is not populated by Tunisian friends and family he has left behind, but rather by the fellow strangers he has known. As he flips through the pages wondering who he could telephone at such an hour and conjuring the image of each person behind the handwriting – often young women he has picked up in the metro – three narratives of friendship with fellow Tunisians in France emerge: the stories of Adel Talibi, a student, Hadj Hammouda and his wife, immigrants from rural Tunisia who came to France for medical treatment of Hammouda’s infertility, and Souad Gharsallah, a young woman who was the narrator’s lover for a time. All three relationships have ended: Adel has returned to Tunisia as have Hadj Hammouda and his wife. Souad has disappeared. But in many ways, these three figures remain central in the narrator’s life, and as he battles the loneliness of the night, he reflects on their lives and his feelings towards them.
In this novel, Selmi shows how dislocated people meet and slowly reveal their lives to each other. At the same time, he often quietly and beautifully shows that this intimacy is never complete. Whether with Souad or Adel, the whole story, the whole past, is never entirely shared. There are too many similarities and too many wounds that cannot be recounted. As Souad is about to tell the narrator the most traumatic part of her past, the narrator starts thinking about scorpions and his home in Tunisia. He interrupts her, and her narrative is never resumed. Likewise, the sexual tension between the narrator and Adel renders a deeper intimacy impossible. When Adel’s father dies and he has a psychological breakdown, the narrator, fixated on his own repressed desire for Adel, cannot comfort him, and eventually leaves Adel’s apartment, for his room. Deeper communication and connection seems impossible. The intimacy that develops in shared exile cannot completely heal past wounds.
In a 2003 Banipal interview with Samuel Shimon, Selmi explained that he prefers to confine “all my protagonists to a small space throughout the novel because in general, I favour novels with few events and places. I believe that a novel is not a tale or a myth that is full of characters and events. The novel is not a sack full of occurrences and changes.” La Nuit de l’étranger is neither tale nor myth, and though told during the night, the novel is not a 1001 Nights sackful of occurrences. The choice to confine his characters outside of larger bustling narratives is not only an aesthetic decision. Rather, it reflects the political reality that, as in their home countries, “strangers” in Paris often exist in small spaces outside master narratives of inclusion and success. Too often, in both places, there is no societal plot that drives their lives towards the future. Too often, “strangers” remain stuck in an existential waiting room in between the past and the future, nourished only through memories, incapable of movement. As the narrators expresses, “And exile is always exile, here as over there” (148).
The novel ends where it begins: in the narrator’s room. At the beginning of the night, the narrator asks whom he might call? In the end, he is overtaken by a fervent desire to speak to someone. He abandons his address book and dials a random number: “Contrary to what I expected, I didn’t wait long, a voice reaches me, a voice that expresses itself with difficulty, I know right away that it belongs to a stranger, a foreigner like myself”. Despite this connection and the comfort that he feels, the narrator doesn’t say anything: “In reality, I have nothing to say, because what can someone like me say at this moment to someone else that he doesn’t know?” (189). While there is a comfort in knowing that one is not alone in his condition, in recognising someone who is like him, ultimately, as Selmi shows yet again, the comfort of strangers cannot completely heal the loneliness and isolation of exile, of migration, of small spaces.