“The Offering,” by Salah el Moncef, is primarily a detailed character study about a brilliant poet with an unhinged mind due to traumatic brain injury. The book also contains a suspenseful, complex, and challenging psychological mystery. But most importantly, it is a novel of enormous literary beauty.
The story is told as a first-person narrative. It covers approximately a year and a half in the life of Tariq, an ambitious scholarly poet and philosopher of Tunisian descent living in France. The book is a collection of his recovered memories during this significant time period before the brain injury. We learn that in the months preceding the injury, Tariq suffers two catastrophic psychological events: first, his German wife abandons him without any warning whatsoever, emptying their home, and removing his children. Then later, the boys are killed in a harrowing catastrophe while on summer holiday with their father. What happens in Tariq’s life during this period, how and why the two boys are killed, and the detailed events in the last critical week prior to the catastrophe—all these form the baffling psychological puzzle underpinning this formidable tale of psychiatric dissociation and amnesia.
The first three-quarters of the novel are deeply introspective…sometimes to the point of psychological claustrophobia. But, in the last quarter of the book, it morphs into a page-turning psychological suspense thriller. The ending is so shocking it left me disoriented. It’s the type of ending that makes readers climb back into the body of the text to try to figure out what was missed. Frankly, it took me a while to work my way through the disorientation, but when I did, I was greatly impressed with what the author had achieved and how he had accomplished it.
This is one of those novels where it is very important to not give away too many of the plot points. The book must be read very carefully. Here is some information that may be helpful. All of this is clearly stated in the beginning of the book, yet it is easy to gloss over these important beginning words (thinking, perhaps, that they will certainly be repeated later) and then find yourself forgetting it all by the time you are well into the body of the text.
• The book begins with a long introduction (actually a detailed academic book review) by Mari Ruti. She is Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Toronto, where she teaches contemporary theory, psychoanalysis, continental philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, and popular culture. I assume what she writes is very close to how the author would like his book to be understood and appreciated. It may help to read this both before and again after finishing the book. You can trust that it does not give away any significant plot points.
• The book also begins with a foreword. It is by a man named Sami Mamlouk and dated March 2017. Obviously, given this date, Sami is a fictional character. We find out in the first section that he is Tariq’s chief assistant in the high-end Tunisian restaurant that the two operate in Bordeaux. Sami is an important character. Remember what he reveals in this introduction and track him carefully once he enters the plot. Remember that we are told in this foreword that the main character, Tarig, has committed suicide (sometime before 2017; the book ends in 2008) and his multimedia computer files were posthumously edited, translated, and reworked into the novel we are reading.
• The events that make up the body of the novel take place in France and Tunisia between mid 2006 and mid 2008.
• The novel has seven sections. The first and last sections have no designations. Section 2 is headed “Southwest ’06” and refers to events in Bordeaux in 2006; section 3 is “South ’07” and refers to events in Tunisia in 2007; sections 4 and 6 are both “North ’07” and refer to Paris in 2007; and section 5 is “West ’08” and refers to events taking place at the holistic medicine psychiatric facility in Brittany in 2008.
I hope these seemingly insignificant points help orient you within the context of the novel, particularly in the beginning. That’s where I found myself quite confused about who, where, and when.
Did I enjoy the novel? Definitely, but not always. It was certainly very difficult and slow to read, but I took great pleasure in experiencing the carefully crafted prose, poetic metaphors, and penetrating philosophical insights. I tend to seek out dark dramatic novels with strong literary overtones, so this aspect of the book held me enthrall. I also very much enjoy elaborate character studies—even those about characters that I don’t particularly like…and to tell you the truth, I did not like Tariq. In fact, I had a hard time feeling sympathetic toward him. He reminded me all too much of significant men in my youth who I had the foresight to abandon before they caused me more psychological harm.
Throughout the novel, I recognized him for all the qualities that he detests in his former self after his personality is transformed by the brain injury. At that point in the novel, he remembers who he used to be (i.e., the man we’ve invested over 300 pages getting to know) as “infinitely selfish and self-centered.” Yes, exactly; that’s what I’d been thinking about Tariq all along! The character’s prose is so introspective that it leaves no room for considering what other people are feeling. It is always, all about him. He is a poet and he feels his whole world profoundly through all his senses. He has keen insight into what he is feeling. His emotions are intense. But he is almost blind to the feelings and needs of the other significant people who share his life. That aspect of the book I found exceedingly difficult to bear.
Despite the book’s complexity and laser-sharp focus on the inner psychological landscape of the main character, the story kept me spellbound. The novel is like a large linked collection of fascinating everyday human interest “stories,” all told with enormous attention to sensory detail and literary perfection, and, naturally, all told from the same person’s impassioned and disturbingly intense point of view. The “stories” cover a complex web of subjects and emotions.
I could go on writing about this outstanding and most unusual novel for many pages, but I won’t and I shouldn’t. If my review has piqued your interest, by all means read this novel. I envy you the unique experience you are about ready to embark on.