Published in 1969, The Scorpion by Tunisian author Albert Memmi is one of those novels that were common among the postmodern literature wave that was taking place at the time. Although very different, this novel sort of reminds me a little of Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch. A highly experimental narrative, Memmi employs a highly metafictional structure here. If late 1960s postmodern experimental fiction is your thing, this is the book for you, although it’s not that easy to get a hold of in English translation these days (my copy is a very old edition I happened to stumble on in a local bookstore).
The story — as much as there is one — is about a well known, socially engaged Tunisian author, also named Memmi, who has gone missing and his younger brother, an ophthalmologist, discovers his brother’s papers in his desk drawer. But what is it that he finds? An unfinished novel? A journal? Random scraps of paper with notes for a novel? Perhaps all of these things. To add to the confusion, each section is written in different colored ink (Albert Memmi had originally wanted the novel published this way but logistics made that impossible. Instead the novel uses differing fonts in order to distinguish the different writings). Memmi’s brother sits down and tries to sort through this mess of paper in order to make sense of it all and perhaps pull it all together as a complete manuscript.
As he reads it all, he discovers Memmi’s musings on childhood, life, death and marriage; his genealogy and his Jewish origins (as well as how his family split into both Jewish and Islamic branches); his interaction with other artists and writers; his conversations with his intellectual uncle; an almost verbatim conversation with one of Memmi’s former students; side notes, musings, quotes, photographs — everything is disjointed and scattered. While the reader reads the book, the reader is also privy to Memmi’s brother’s musings and commentary on what he had read (and in a way, adding to the manuscript itself). He corrects what he feels is inaccurate but sometimes he can’t tell what is deliberate fabrication and what is simply literary license. At first, the writings are about childhood in Tunisia under French colonial rule. Then things become much darker as the nation moves towards independence.
As Memmi’s brother reaches the last of the papers, he takes it upon himself to complete it, offering his own commentary and ideas trying to pull all this work together. Overall, the novel is about a nation and its people trying to discover its identity. There are historical musings which are highly interesting to me personally (being that my great-grandparents had lived in Tunis for some years and my grandfather was born there), as well as heavy existential explorations into the meaning of life and death. This is not a linear narrative. There is no plot to speak of. However it does not bore you and the writing is fresh and engaging enough to keep you turning the pages to try to figure out what it’s all supposed to mean, forcing the reader to engage with the text as much as its protagonist does. I love novels like this because they are such a rarity these days since much Literary Fiction has become very conservative, eschewing these narrative experiments.