It’s a warm August afternoon. A man has climbed up the metal tower clock in central Tunis. The tower clock was erected in the center of the city by the current president Ben Ali, after the preceding President Bourguiba had passed away, and his statue removed. Climbing up the clock is forbidden, and this man has defied the restriction, waving to the crowd that gathered beneath him. He is Saleh, known as The Gorilla. A black man, an orphan, who grew up in the countryside and worked as a guardian of the deceased President Bourguiba’s tomb. People he’s had ties with recognize him, staring up the clock or on their television screens. Even the vicious police officer Ali Kilab (Ali The Dogs) recognizes him and sees in his presence up on the metal tower a great opportunity to take him down, take him in and eventually kill him. During the hours of The Gorilla’s holding on to the tower clock, despite the electric chocks Ali Kilab sends him through the metal frame of the tower, the city is in ebullition. Something big is coming, a wave of discontent fed with fear and misery.
The novel’s timeframe is set between The Gorilla reaching the top of the tower, and the dramatic fall, followed by the calcination of his body — a clear allusion to the historical event that started the Tunisian uprising in December 2010. During this time, a patchwork of characters and stories is rhythmically woven chapter after chapter, until all the pieces fall into place, and an almost complete landscape unfolds before the readers’ eyes.
The novel has a weblike structure. It holds in its center the main character at the top of the tower clock, where it all starts and ends. From that central and emblematic figure, each chapter goes in a different direction in time and in space, following the story of one of the multiple characters that all take part in the final revolutionary scene. The Gorilla, as many of the other characters, was involved in an aborted coup.
Al Riahi succeeds in creating a captivating atmosphere, partly violent, partly ludicrous with hints of strangeness that give it all a dreamlike feel. He depicts with great wit and a beautifully colorful and modern language a drifting Tunisian society. There is something extremely human and likable about The Gorilla. And his terrible death, although expected and ineluctable, resounds with a deep sadness.
Everything changed that day. Feelings were incoherent and the gorilla was full of contradictions. The body of the Leader advanced at the head, stretched out on a military vehicle, draped in a flag. The whole world followed, running. The Leader was like a god, as he processed towards his village that had been turned into a city. He was at the end of the procession, and had to put up with shoves and kicks. Faces and bodies around him pressed to look towards the corpse. Sometimes he was overwhelmed with curses and abuse. He got in the way of the movement of the final dash behind the corpse of the departing god. The gorilla saw himself shouting midst the running crowd, “I’m his child, the child of the great Bourguiba, come on to me, come and mourn with me!” He was drowned in tears of orphanhood and denial, mystifying them with riddles.
Alone he followed the corpse like some embarrassing truth. He was separated from him by savage lies. He was consumed by the fever of defeat and he remembered being in prison wearing a heavy German coat that protected him from the cold of a March cell. Suddenly he was possessed by an image of the Leader on the island of La Galite where he spent months of exile in the same coat.
Each of them was the same. Each of them had been in prison. Both have been eaten by the cold. The funeral procession continued like the Prophet’s she-camel. Behind him the caravan proceeded as he had wanted, and behind the caravan a gorilla of his type who left him suddenly to his gloom. He loved him only on that day. He took revenge on the mourners at the funeral, when the black car took the corpse. Faces scattered and the tears of the funeral ceremonies evaporated with the departure of the news camera. The gorilla was left all by himself to guard his black fur and the asphalt of the road. He tried to utter his old cry, clapping his hands but was betrayed by his hands that fell to his chest like two cadavers. The self-image of the gorilla collapsed so he felt he was no bigger than a monkey forgotten among the rocks looking for a tree or a branch or some rope or a cobra to sting in order to end the pain. Haunted by gloom he sunk into his old depression. At another time it would have been necessary to take them on with courage. Another time they would have torn him to pieces and thrown him out and he would spend the rest of his life on the reserve bench.
al-Ghorilla | translation sample by Peter Clarck, published in Beirut 39, Bloomsbury
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