Saturday 12 October 2019

This Tilting World by Colette Fellous    {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“Tomorrow, yes, I will leave this house. I’ll abandon the village and the life here, all the faces that I love I will leave.” Following the death of a friend at sea and the murder of 38 people on her local beach at Sousse in 2015, Fellous determines that she will leave her native Tunisia, this time for good. “Even if leaving tears me apart, even if leaving destroys me, I cannot do anything else.” For those, like Fellous, whose business is words, exile, the preparation for exile, and whatever is carried into exile must consist primarily of words, and Fellous determines to write “this book that I mean to finish before daybreak, as a farewell gesture to the country.” She has found herself inseparable from Tunisia, but she has “come back to see, in order more easily to disengage.” Handling object after object, she stows her memories ready for departure, not only her own memories of growing up in Tunisia’s ancient but shrinking Jewish community, of leaving to further her (formal and informal) education in France as a teenager, of repeatedly returning to the country of her birth, but also those of her parents, especially those of her father, who left Tunisia for Paris in his sixties and never returned nor spoke of the life he had left behind, and who has recently died of a heart attack. In preparation for leaving the past behind, Fellous sets out to heal, through words, through memory, her parents’ “deep wordless wound of having left their country so brutally, as if it were a natural step: this they kept in silence, folded deep inside, like so may others, not daring to touch on or venture near it; and this I meant to feel in my turn. This they had passed down to me, it had become my wound. And perhaps, after all, it was this I had sought to treat by returning, by trying to recover their childhood.” Using a method that owes something to Proust and a style that owes something to Rimbaud (exquisitely translated into English by Sophie Lewis), Fellous’s beautiful prose moves delicately, like the most tentative and searching thought, around and between entities in her memory that are either too fragile or too awful to be approached directly. In this way she achieves what she calls, after Barthes, her “struggle for softness,” her overcoming of violence by rejecting the language of violence. “It was Barthes, there’s no question, more than my parents, who taught me to read the world, to leave nothing in limbo. All things observed, all words spoken, every silence between two words, every link between two sentences.” Fellous’s approach to draw together all elements: times, people, objects, memories, sensations; to pack her book with the great cluster of experiences that comprise what it is to be herself, to show with words how a mind can approach and encompass these experiences, all the while knowing that the past is being squeezed out of the present, excluded from a world that is changing. “Could all of us, perhaps, without knowing it, the French, the Italians, the Maltese, the Jews, the Greeks, the Muslims of this country, we who watch and play together in this cafe, in this small nowhere-town, yes, could all of us already be refugees, already hostages or prisoners, or even disappeared?” Human well-being is a precious, fragile, evanescent thing, easily destroyed, she knows. “What to make of this violence, all those dead on the beach, all the dead everywhere, they are in me, haunting my lips and my eyes.” Those expelled from their own lives have only memories as their possessions: “This is the story of so many exiles, of all those who today cross the Medierranean and die at sea, in their thousands they go, are lost in their thousands, their story is ours too, it tugs at our hearts.” Fellous knows that she must leave Tunisia, in order to prevent her memories from being overwritten by an unaccommodating world: “I know that only by leaving will I save everything that lies before me now.” She completes her book, her memory-luggage, and departs. But, in the end, even this last leaving is uncertain: “I knew I could not do it — I couldn’t help it, I would always be returning.” 

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