Heather's Reviews > Talismano

Talismano by Abdelwahab Meddeb
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Sep 09, 2011

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bookshelves: fiction, library-books, literature-in-translation
Read from September 09 to October 01, 2011

Talismano, which was originally published in French by Éditions Sindbad in 1987, must have been quite a lot of work (and perhaps also quite a lot of fun) to translate. In her introduction, Jane Kuntz calls the book “willfully cryptic” and talks about how Meddeb’s language is a French inflected by Arabic, and not just Arabic, but classical Arabic and then also Tunisian dialect, “the latter being a delicious mixture of Arabic, Berber, Italian, and French” (V, XI). Kuntz also notes that Meddeb’s “ideal reader would almost have to be his intellectual match, someone well versed in the Koran and the Bible, in Islamic and Christian doctrine and culture, not to mention in the politics of one-party governmental regimes and the sprawling multigenerational households of the southern Mediterranean” (VI). Right. Put me down as a non-ideal reader for this book, then.

Maybe in part because I’m not Meddeb’s “ideal reader,” this book was a really slow read for me: it took me nearly a month to finish, though it’s under 300 pages. I wasn’t even reading any other books over the course of the month—though I was catching up on my subscription to the New Yorker. Sometimes I was reading slowly because the writing is so lovely I wanted to savor it; sometimes I was reading slowly because the writing is so dense and so allusive. I definitely like to look things up when I’m reading: I want to know more about unfamiliar words, unfamiliar places, philosophers or philosophies mentioned in passing, foods, drinks, architecture. There was a lot to look up in this book, and a lot to note down.

The book itself is twisty and difficult to describe: it’s a story of exile and a story of return and a story of rebellion, and it’s a mix of past and present, the narrator’s memories and the narrator’s imagination (and of course, Meddeb’s imagination). The narrative jumps around, but the book is divided into three main sections: “Return Prosititution,” about coming back, in memory or fact, to Tunis after a time away; “Idol Ghetto,” in which a crowd is struck with revolutionary fervor, which it expresses by building a grotesque idol from bits of bodies exhumed from a cemetery; and “Otherworld Procession,” in which that idol is carried through the streets to the mosque. Throughout there’s lots of sex and lots of rebellion against officialdom of many sorts (government, colonialism, religious strictures); there’s the crowd and its frenzy, the dream-logic of a mob, carnivalesque inversions of order, with a band of sorceresses taking control. There’s also a lot of delicious description, wonderful cityscapes, bits of Tunis, bits of Paris, bits of Rome, bits of Venice. The narrator is a writer and a walker, sometimes a flâneur, and the text is often very list-like, which I totally love: strings of images, the experience of a walk put onto the page: the narrator is “a wandering eye rummaging about, sometimes distractedly, transcribing the street”; he writes of what it is “to be body afoot, shaping the distances as they scatter” (86, 12). “I want to dissolve myself high on the city,” he says, (177), followed, a few pages later, by this:

The square has dissolved, trees seen from fifth-floor vantage, narrow balcony. Traces left behind, children’s merry-go-round leaves Chinese calligraphy patterns on the ground; over there, the pointy belfries of Saint-Jean-Baptiste of Belleville; beneath my feet the balcony drops away and I find myself airborne and light-headed, approaching the bell towers, sailing above the buildings, soaring over park and butte, bridge and pond, leaving behind apartment tower and suburb, Saint-Denis basilica, roof dripping green, dropping into the gloom, scattered cedars around Roissy, toward the land of mists. (179)

I love the way the narrative jumps from place to place, city to city, Tunis to Venice, or Tunis to Paris to Rome to Cairo. Early in the book I was totally enchanted by the description of the birds of different cities, too long to quote here, but, oh, so good.
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Reading Progress

09/25/2011 page 104
41.0% "This book is really dense and pretty slow going for me - definitely not train reading."
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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DoctorM I just finished this. Tell me what you thought...

Heather Oops, normally I crosspost reviews from my book blog here but I seem not to have on this one. I'll post it now. But, hm, basically, the parts I loved, I really really loved (the city-ish parts, bits of Paris, bits of Venice, bits of Tunis); the rest was sometimes slow/dense. What about you?

DoctorM Exactly. I loved the evocations of Tunis and the way he assembled all those other cities into a shadow-Tunis... But parts were too slow. Still--- something I'm glad I discovered at the library.

Heather wrote: "Oops, normally I crosspost reviews from my book blog here but I seem not to have on this one. I'll post it now. But, hm, basically, the parts I loved, I really really loved (the city-ish parts, bit..."

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