Abdelwahab Meddeb - An orgy of the senses; walking and writing, journey and journal, mirror one another to produce a calligraphic, magical work: a palimpsest of various languages and cultures




Abdelwahab Meddeb, Talismano, Trans. by Jane Kuntz, Dalkey Archive, 2011.

"Talismano is a novelistic exploration of writing seen as a hallucinatory journey through half-remembered, half-imagined cities—in particular, the city of Tunis, both as it is now, and as it once was. Walking and writing, journey and journal, mirror one another to produce a calligraphic, magical work: a palimpsest of various languages and cultures, highlighting Abdelwahab Meddeb's beguiling mastery of both the Western and Islamic traditions. Meddeb's journey is first and foremost a sensual one, almost decadent, where the narrator luxuriates in the Tunis of his memories and intercuts these impressions with recollections of other cities at other times, reviving the mythical figures of Arab-Islamic legend that have faded from memory in a rapidly westernizing North Africa. A fever dream situated on the knife-edge between competing cultures, Talismano is a testament to the power of language to evoke, and subdue, experience."

"Abdelwahab Meddeb is an award-winning French-language poet, novelist, essayist, translator, editor, Islamic scholar, cultural critic, political commentator, radio producer, public intellectual and professor of comparative literature at the University of Paris X-Nanterre. Since 9/11 his work, always informed by what Meddeb terms his “double genealogy,” both western and Islamic, French and Arabic, has included an urgent political dimension. An outspoken critic of Islamic fundamentalism, he is a staunch proponent of secularism (“la laïcité”) in the French Enlightenment tradition, as the necessary guarantor of democracy that would reconcile Islam with modernity. His vigilant point of view derives from the privilege of what he calls the “in-between” space (“l’entre deux”), and from the responsibility that comes with the position of public intellectual as an Arab writer based in France." - Wikipedia

“Meddeb promises nothing short of an orgy. First, an orgy of the senses: at the outset of the novel, a city, Tunis, deploys its smells and shadows, like the fulfillment of an erotic desire. But also an orgy of sense, of meaning: reviving heresy and heathens, the novel culminates in the sacrificial slaughter of a bull. Talismano lays out an enigmatic mosaic... It took a foreigner, someone who is not what he seems, to unleash the French language and send it whirling.” - Gérard Dupuy

“Talismano has that rare quality, one found among others in Antonin Artaud’s Héliogabale, in Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, or in Burroughs’s The Wild Boys, that is, a darkness both lively and aggressive.” - Malek Alloula

"From his earliest essays, novels, poems and editorial work in the mid-1970s onward, Abdelwahab Meddeb’s writing has always been multiple and diverse, forming an on-going literary project that mixes and transcends genres. His texts are those of a polymath. The movement and rhythms of his French sentences are commensurate with the meditations of a narrator who is a flâneur, a walker in the city, and a poet without borders. Associative imagery allows the writing to nomadize across space and time, to dialogue with writers such as Dante and Ibn Arabi, the Sufi poets and Mallarmé, Spinoza, Aristotle and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), along with the poets of classical China and Japan. Formally, Meddeb practices what he calls an “esthetics of the heterogeneous,” playing with different literary forms from many traditions, including the European modernist novel, pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, the medieval mystical poets of Islam, Japanese Haiku, and so on. Although he writes only in French, his conscious literary ambition to “liberate the Islamic referent from its strict context so that it circulates in the contemporary French text” marks his writing with enigmatic traces of ‘otherness.” His privileging of these Arabic and Persian literary precursors explores archaic cultural resources in postmodern forms, emphasizing the esthetic, spiritual and ethical aspects of Islam. His work, translated into over a dozen languages, opens onto and enriches the dialogue with contemporary world literature." - Andrea Flores Khalil

"If you really wish your country to avoid regression, or at best halts and uncertainties, a rapid step must be taken from national consciousness to political and social consciousness.” At the height of nationalist struggles for decolonization in 1961, Frantz Fanon wrote this warning against too great an attachment to the rhetoric, images, and energy of what he calls national consciousness. Twenty years later in his novel Talismano, the Tunisian author Abdelwahab Meddeb directly confronts the issues raised by Fanon’s prescription for a genuinely postcolonial cultural imagination. In this novel, however, the “rapid step” finds its rejoinder in the itinerant arabesques of the narrator’s path through the postcolonial cityscape. Attempting to reconstruct a personal history, the narrator revisits the sites of his childhood by traveling the map of Tunis; in so doing, the wandering narrative composes a portrait of a heterogeneous city over and against the totalizing modernist claims of a postcolonial national consciousness. Circulating through the spaces held captive by the idée fixe of the modern state, the text capitalizes on the itinerant step to imagine an alternative species of writing—what the novel calls allography—that could mark difference in the public spaces of identity." - Dina Al-Kassim


Excerpt:
Here I am back again, spoken, city of mazes, moved to put aside thoughts of childhood, to recover bygone flavors through this Tunis of amorous pursuit. The doors in soft blue, black-nailed, landmarks encrusted with memory's teasing, slippery tricks. To fathom the secret of streets and alleys untraveled, if only as the former itineraries of a childhood still not make-believed into lost paradise.
Bab al 'Asal, sweet gateway to memory lane: as a child, I knew a certain carpenter there was a relative of sorts. He didn’t recognize me. But I watched him in fascination and disdain as he worked, yardstick in hand, pencil behind ear: is he truly the only manual laborer in a family that boasts theologians, wealthy merchants, feudal lords, bureaucrats, doctors, notaries, lawyers, judges, and other notables?
Slight of build, he alone among us possesses the cunning certainty of accurate movement. I never before stopped to actually observe him at work. I knew him only as presence: a useful milestone along my route, a buffer against the danger looming over any ramble through the city, be it from one floor of our villa to the next, or from the fresh morning scent of spring flowers there all the way to the acrid stench of urine so ill-suited to the street’s name—’asal meaning honey.

Read it at Google Books

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