Thursday, April 16, 2015

What Is Love? A Review of Salah el Moncef's The Offering

The Offering
Author: Salah el Moncef
Publisher: Penelope Books
Publication: 31.05.2015
pp. 432
Tags: Fiction

“To write a diary every day,” Enoch Powell once said, “is like returning to one’s own vomit.” A harsh but fair assessment of the writer’s motivation. Only writers keep diaries. This is their “material,” from which the poetically inclined regurgitate their “stories.” In French the story, or histoire, in colloquial usage means “tale,” one you tell your children to send them to sleep, for instance. Unless one is taking cours d’histoire in order to better understand the past, one shouldn’t raconter des histories, or “tell fibs.” Which brings us to the story of Tariq Abbassi, the Tunisian poet and central protagonist of Salah el Moncef’s highly disturbing and richly tantalising novel The Offering.

We encounter Tariq for the first time in Paris in late summer 2007, where he’s embroiled with his German ex-wife, Regina, in a bitter custody battle for their two young sons, Shams and Haroon. Tariq, it’s fair to say, is some kind of neurotic. He tells his story – or rather it is told for him – through a labyrinthine mise en abyme: a story lodged deep in the belly of the whale of partial recollections, or set beneath a metanarrative of scattered secondary reflections and free associations. This narrative framing device is not destined to throw much light on “the truth” he (apparently) seeks. Indeed, the protagonist’s diary-cum-novel almost immediately becomes mired in psychological obfuscation. Regina’s voice is never given the opportunity to emerge through the din of self-analysis and the working-through of the protagonist’s own trauma. ‘“First, you need to spend many, many months listening to your pain – the loss of your relationship with Regina,” his close friend and confidant Zoe advises him. In other words this is a story all about “you,” Tariq, in which your wife’s “duplicity” must vie with the poet’s legendary narcissism.

The poet is forever in search of events. He is the one most attuned to tragedy. “That was the beginning: Regina’s letter and I running through the streets of Bordeaux at two o’clock in the morning, all the way to the Riverside precinct,” in order to report an “abduction.” Needless to say it is not within the purview of the French justice system to be able to address the protagonist’s sense of existential dislocation – “an unmoored atom drifting in vacuity.” Nor indeed is it able to treat Regina’s decision to leave him as anything more than an acte manqué: a message for the protagonist to decipher, rather than a genuine action expressing genuine emotions. For the protagonist “Regina” is a mere symptom or sign of his own misguided behaviour. As he observes on returning to their empty apartment, “I… tried to figure out her motives, her fears, what she wanted to tell me through this.” Such is Tariq’s obsession which – by the very nature of obsession – is an unrealizable desire, an objet petit a that will keep him turning in circles. 

The curse of the poet resides in his only being attuned to the here and now, which “was like a wave endlessly crashing.” (The subtitle of Zoe’s doctoral dissertation on Deleuze – “A Poetic Machine” – is meant to underscore for us the curse of repetition). Time can ordinarily create the sense of perspective, or distance from trauma, which is needed to go on living. But the poet experiences time differently wherein the monumentality of the event never fully recedes in to the past. Instead it takes on a new direction or assumes new form. It isn’t long before Tariq admits to his self-serving manipulation of Regina’s feelings – albeit at the price of a lingering “intellectual subterfuge.” Where such obsessive-compulsive recollections lead, or what phantasmagorical form they might adopt next, is the central conundrum of el Moncef’s novel – the very puzzle from which Tariq’s story is tantalisingly woven.

In the initial stages of the divorce proceedings two loyal friends offer themselves as character witnesses: Zoe and Sami Mamlouk, Tariq’s assistant chef at his Tunisian restaurant. Sami’s testimony goes beyond loyalty: “His digression and the world of suppressed suffering … suddenly generated a new common reality (a sharing) between us… Something had to be done somehow – a symbolic gesture; and the fact that I was still in the dark as to how that gesture would play out in our workaday relationship did not make thinking about the new situation any easier.”

One is reminded of the “duplicity” of love when both Zoe and Sami’s witness testimonies are dismissed by Tariq’s solicitor as a “liability.” Its duplicity will return to haunt the protagonist later on. What is the intensity of these emotional attachments hiding? These love-hate relationships with friends whose words are beyond reproach? 

In a moment of dubious (rev)elation Tariq takes his boys to “The South” and his family home in Tunisia: “Through an act of imaginary projection in which loss and hope converged,” the protagonist assumes that “by going down to Tunisia in the summer I would allow myself to work my way up the stream of time with ease – travelling back to the days when my life was still a blank page and I had all the power to fill it as freely and as beautifully as I wished.” But the page is far from blank and is criss-crossed with the failures and disappointments of adolescence. What of the protagonist’s “pro-democracy activism” alluded to at several points during his stay? This is never treated as anything more than a footnote in a closed book, at best as a self-pitying reflection on “how little I had to show for my toil.” So much for his vacation of self-re-discovery, of being an “unmoored atom drifting in vacuity.” (Let us add that for Deleuzian philosopher-poets inertia is often a recurring fantaisie). So much for the “agnosticism” that Kareem, his sanctimonious and devoutly religious brother castigates him for.

Atoms don’t “drift.” Matter is directed in an ever-expanding universe. The material reality of Tariq’s lamentable separation from Regina is hammered home to him as he is shuttled between family gatherings. There at the centre of it all is “Mother,” the gravitational force and ethico-moral justification for all things: the Janus face of transitions; but also the anchor of an inescapable past, the barrier against memory and reinvention. Could this mercurial woman nonetheless hold the key to unlocking a new life for the protagonist? Is there some lesson to be had from her endurance of an unhappy marriage?  

Tariq’s return to France puts his own “endurance” to the test. He embarks on an unlikely yet liberating relationship with the much younger Annaelle. It’s at this point that el Moncef’s novel takes on the scintillating form of a psychological thriller, the dissociation of the protagonist recalling the best of J. G. Ballard’s fiction (Super-Cannes is the obvious comparison). The Left Bank with its distorted perspectives, hidden courtyards and tropical gardens becomes the phantasmagorical setting for a miraculous, masochistic and all-consuming love affair: what turns out to be a last tango in Paris, since the sublime and mesmerizing Annaelle is also a bad omen: “you mustn’t think of me as – Joan of Arc or something,” she warns her lover. This is hardly the transition the protagonist has been striving for. When the relationship ends catastrophically with the mysterious death of his two sons we are confronted once again with the power of the protagonist’s projections. (Recall that, for Lacan, transference is an act of love.) But who is the subject here? Who is speaking? Or, rather, is a subject ever destined to emerge from the analysis, or in Tariq’s case from “The Community,” the psychiatric institution in which he finds himself stranded, and from where he has to put back together, through “the labor of recollection,” the events leading up to his sons’ deaths – the events of a vanished life? 

Salah el Moncef’s novel is an exquisitely drawn character study, not so much of a psychologically disturbed individual as of a collective trauma in the making. Provocative and intelligent, this is a beguiling story of the twin enigmas of love and sacrifice.  

Read more about The Offering at the Los Angeles Review of Books

Order the book on Amazon 

Visit the author's website


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