Memory, Trauma, Confabulation, and Narrative Identity Play: An Unsettling Puzzle
Tariq Abbassi, a French experimental poet of Tunisian origin, has lost his children, his memories, as well as his ability to speak and function on his own. As an odd after-effect of his brain injury, he can now express himself fully, by his own account, only in ‘a perfectly fluent but excessively formal and florid English,’ and only in writing. He refuses to see most of his friends and family members for reasons vacillating between suspicion and guilt, and he provides convoluted and contradictory clues concerning the real cause of his brain injury. The Offering opens with Tariq’s friend Sami Mamlouk’s presentation of his role in the publishing of Tariq’s typescript after Tariq’s suicide and ends with a letter supposedly written by Tariq’s mother ‘ but these framing devices, traditionally used to add clarity to an unreliable protagonist-narrator’s account, in fact render the narrative more disquieting and perplexing. Sami describes the letter as a ‘self-addressed email’ appended to the typescript, and throughout the introduction, his general attitude and writing style are at odds with his portrayal in Tariq’s text. Moreover, subtle clues in Tariq’s typescript frame the letter as the product of Tariq’s therapeutic appropriation of the voice of the imaginary mother—infinitely loving and fully capable of expressing that love. Nonetheless, Sami did mediate between Tariq and the publishers, so he might have altered (parts of) the typescript, in spite of his claims to authenticity, in which case Sami’s approach of Tariq’s tragedy would have to be read as deeply self-involved and self-serving.
The mystery novel structure suggested by these details (many of which emerge fairly early in the novel) is complicated in the most enticing manner by Salah el Moncef’s skillfully deceptive writing style. The typescript presumably left behind by Tariq is difficult to elucidate not just because Tariq’s recovery of his writing ‘voice’ is a painful and meandering process, but also because Tariq seems to be struggling to hide (from) the reality of his past about as much as he claims to be struggling to uncover it. At first, he appears childishly self-centered, naive, and confused—both in the way he is patching together veiled memories, photos, and journal entries and in the way he comments on past events. In a cringe-worthy episode, as he recounts the events following his wife’s departure with his sons, he expresses gratitude for the kindness and encouragement received from a deputy mayor (a client of his restaurant) while failing to notice the man’s crassly sexist remarks (an attitude that resonates with his initial inability to acknowledge the reasons for his wife’s decision to leave him). Later in the novel, as the writing style parallels Tariq’s recovery in displaying increasing stylistic and structural sophistication, the narrative becomes both more thrilling and more elusive. Even the stunningly beautiful evocations of beloved places and people in Tunisia and France are dominated by an undercurrent of mystery and dread, as the protagonist-narrator always appears to be withholding something. It remains difficult to ascertain if what Tariq continues to defer is mere factual information or something to do with his ever-morphing perception and evaluation of events. A dizzying film of authentic pain mixed with rather repulsive righteousness and self-pity stretches over Tariq’s prose. At times, the narrative invites the reader to connect with the protagonist, only to circumvent the very possibility of a connection seconds later with a swift reminder that representation is always, for multiple reasons and at multiple levels, little more than deceit.
Both the truth of representation and that of perception are subjected to scrutiny in this fascinating excursion into the depths of the mind. According to Lacan, in order to truly understand repetition compulsion, one needs to acknowledge that patients often lie about the facts as a way to tell the truth about trauma. Tariq’s (re)constructed recollection and vivid re-living of the death of his sons at the hands of heinous conspirators may appear hideously implausible and egomaniacal from an objective viewpoint but constitutes an authentic approximation of Tariq’s real pain and crushing inability to tackle his feelings of guilt. The pages leading to the closing letter offer several clues that Tariq is no longer able or willing to fuel his confabulation. The letter recreates the protagonist as an infinitely resourceful son capable of overcoming his ordeal and ready to start a new, more creative and rewarding life—a mother’s loving projection, and a more consistent and autonomous human being than the writing protagonist had ever been or could ever become. Perhaps this very realization drove Tariq to suicide. Perhaps, on the contrary, it determined him to run away from prosecution for negligent homicide, and Sami is lying to protect him. Or perhaps Tariq does not even exist—he is entirely Sami’s invention.