BookBlast reviews This Tilting World by Colette Fellous, translated from French by Sophie Lewis
“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. The friends, the objects, the doors, the pavement slabs, the tall eucalyptus and the wild olive trees, the orange groves, the roads, the markets, the music, the fruit, the dancing, the window of blue, I’ll leave it all, no strength left.”
Looking out to sea, Collette Fellous remembers her 1950s Tunisian childhood, her father, and lifelong friend, the writer Alain, who “died like a Greek hero, with an unheard howl, in the middle of the Aegean Sea, at the helm of his yacht.” She looks at the past in attempt to understand the brutal present on which she wishes to turn her back.
I could talk about that death; I haven’t the strength to discuss the others. This tilting world, how can we talk about it, how make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow those deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged which can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.
The murder of tourists on the beach of Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba, the terror attack on Bardo Museum three months earlier; the Charlie Hebdo Massacre and Porte de Vincennes kosher supermarket massacre two days later in Paris . . . all herald “the world’s metamorphosis and the gradual disappearance of its previous incarnation.”
“The sea is my memory, my raft.”
Her father’s mother tongue was Arabic but he gave it up to learn French at school since that was how it was for his generation which looked to France, “the land of our loves and our dreams”. He eventually emigrated there. He had five children with his wife and left her for a younger woman.
Fellous the time traveller goes back to August 1909 and talks to her father imagining him as a baby in her arms. Later she sees him in her mind’s eye aged twenty seven in a white cotton shirt, a panama on his head, cutting a dashing figure as he walks down the Avenue where he runs an agricultural machinery shop. The children’s future is what matters to him. He wants to spare them “injustice and hatred,” and exhorts them to “make everything greater and more beautiful around us.”
She writes of Tunisia’s Jewish community, and remembers her grandmother who she met six or seven times, and how she spoke Italian and Hebrew.
She pays homage to her mentor Roland Barthes, citing Proust, Flaubert, Maupassant, Rimbaud, Borges, among others. There are visits to fellow exiles in France – Madame Henry in Normandy, Mère Richard, tall Lucie and Bazou.
An elegiac farewell to Tunisia; to Mediterranean life, its peoples, and markets of yesteryear . . . the Madonna’s procession in La Goulette, the open-air cinema in Kram, the smell of peaches, the house in Sidi-Bou-Saïd . . . This Tilting World is an extremely beautifully written and deftly translated visual and linguistic magic carpet woven with the threads of memory, loss and love. It is at once personal, political and cultural.
Poetic, evocative and subtle, the visual, lyrical narrative radiates calm and serenity as the author reminisces, grieves and lets go. Exquisite small black and white photos are scattered throughout the text adding to the fragmented whole. Ultimately, the question I pondered on finishing was: for an exile, what are the roots of identity?
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