Memory, Trauma, and the Diasporic Subject

Salah el Moncef’s vertiginous psycho-thriller, "The Offering," deals with the impossibility of a happy forgetting.

April 4, 2015

    UNRAVELING THE “distinct problematic” of forgetting and forgiveness — a dyad crucial to the survival of traumatic injury like that represented in this, Salah el Moncef’s complex and, finally, shocking second work of fiction, The Offering — the late philosopher Paul Ricœur quickly isolates the relationship’s most salient features: “for forgetting, the problematic of memory and faithfulness to the past; for forgiveness, guilt and reconciliation with the past.” Together, like Beckettian tramps, this pair plods uneasily on toward a “horizon of a memory appeased, even of a happy forgetting.” This last phrase anticipates Ricœur’s later assertion that forgetting may not always be an “enemy of memory” or a sign of cognitive deficiency; on the contrary, the “specter” of a memory that records and effortlessly retrieves everything imprinted on it would be unbearable. Forgetting constitutes a salutary respite in our mental lives, a much-needed rupture in an otherwise unrelenting repetition. And forgetting can constitute a form of forgiveness.

    Other possibilities for forgiveness and self-forgiveness exist as well. For Yale University theologian Miroslav Volf (in The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World [2006]), some remembering recontextualizes injury within larger narratives, with the capacity to neutralize the negative affect associated with the trauma. One such context is the salvific narrative of Christianity, to which Volf returns frequently in recounting his own torture, as a political prisoner in the former Yugoslavia. Given these two very different alternatives — Volf’s expansive renarrativization and Ricœur’s strategic forgetting — the reconciliation with the past and the possibility of self-forgiveness might require a complex calculus, not easily performed.

    And, if one is resolutely agnostic, a lapsed Muslim in the case of el Moncef’s protagonist Tariq Abbassi, a 40-year-old Tunisian who earned his PhD in literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne and owns a small, fashionable restaurant in Bordeaux, religion and its constitutive narratives cannot facilitate the “right remembering” Volf advocates. Further, if a person is obsessed with recording nearly every event, large or small, in his life — and Tariq, a prolific diarist and poet, is just such a person — then the psychic peace afforded by Ricœur’s “happy” forgetting can seem a horizon so distant as to be unapproachable. Tariq’s most consistent relationship — and he has several meaningful ones, including affairs with two beautiful women — is with his laptop, a notion made clear from the novel’s “Foreword” written, as we learn, by one of its characters, Sami Mamlouk, in the spring of 2017. The future dating is meant to suggest the difficulty Sami, Tariq’s sous chef and devoted friend, confronted in trying to shepherd this novel through to publication. After Tariq’s suicide, Sami discovered a “labyrinthine multimedia mosaic of collaged diary excerpts and pictures and audios and videos sprawling endlessly in the recesses of a near-defunct laptop” along with a document referred to as “the letter,” which is appended to the end of The Offering. Among other things, Sami needed to determine the relationship of “the letter” to the larger text and arrange the prose fragments of Tariq’s tragic odyssey into some semblance of order, tasks that exceeded his competence and required the assistance of a professional editor. In one of the innumerable asides among the flashbacks and diary entries that comprise this multilayered, “patched up” story (these asides are always indicated by parentheses), Tariq, prone equally to searing self-recrimination and occasional epiphanies of optimism, perhaps puts the matter of the novel’s textuality best: “(Traces of things gone, echoes of voices that have ceased to carry any direct living meaning for me. … A massive archive of words, sounds and images. The sum of my sad, sad, life — in scribbles and bytes).”

    The scribbles and bytes introduced by Tariq Abbassi’s legatee thus contribute to an at times vertiginous story, a story of constructing and telling a story, and the reconstructed story is both mysterious and arresting. Why does Abbassi’s sprawling archive mean so much to Sami that it has driven him “to distraction”? From what precise injury did the novelist suffer, and what is the provenance of his guilt and eventual suicide? And what about “the letter”? Who wrote it, and why was it in the laptop if Tariq isn’t its author (and he isn’t)? What does it reveal?

    Partial answers to all but the last question are intimated in the opening pages, but a consideration of the letter and its surprising revelations must be deferred to another occasion, as the experience of reading The Offering would be irreparably damaged if the letter’s contents were disclosed here. The novel focuses, for the most part though, on events that occurred in the summer of 2007, and are related through the flashbacks, diary entries, dreams, and other musings of a deeply injured man who has been institutionalized and is undergoing hypnotherapy, among other curative procedures. A late August vacation day and nightfall in Paris that Abbassi enjoyed with his two young sons and his close friend Zoé — sunny hours spent leisurely in the Square du Vert-Galant that at dusk surrendered to a striking view of buildings outlined in deep copper in the afterglow of the sun — yield all too quickly to the beginning of something that will leave the family’s existence “forever shattered.” This “something” is a catalyst for the novel’s trajectory and its several mysteries: the murder in the early morning hours of August 30 of both of Tariq’s children; his traumatic brain injury requiring institutionalization first in Paris and later in Brittany; the subsequent actions of his psychotherapist Dr. Cohen and a Police Commissioner (Pierre Collin) investigating the deaths; the suffering Zoé experiences as a result of these events; and the “providential role” played by Sami Mamlouk. Misinformation about the horrific events of August 30 abounds, such as the speculation that Zoé’s family, particularly her father, is implicated in the two boys’ murders. The opening chapter introduces all of these as possibilities.

    The next chapter follows the decision of his German wife Regina to leave their home in Bordeaux and take the children with her because of his “emotional battery,” and his legal efforts to have the young boys returned or at least gain shared custody of them. It considers the unthinkable possibility that Regina’s indictment of him was not totally baseless. Was it conceivable that, after failing to survive the impossible academic job market of the later 1990s and borrowing money from his mother to open a small “high scale” restaurant, Tariq was angry — more violently so than he recognized — and capable of abusive behavior? A mutual friend of the couple thought so and in testimony of “crucifying eloquence” recounts how she saw trouble looming in Tariq and Regina’s marriage as his simmering discontent boiled over into a “menacing” and even “uncontrollable” anger. From this perspective, Regina’s actions were entirely justified; and, as a lawyer explained to Tariq, in such disputes the German courts make little effort to cooperate with their French counterparts. Even the word “abduction” could not be used in describing his wife’s decision to take their children and flee the country.

    Tariq’s sense of himself implodes, and he quickly became a “witness” to his own “unraveling — an unmoored atom drifting in vacuity.” He watches his selfhood being “whittled away,” his mind “flying out in all directions.” Could it all be true? Was he the sort of man — the sort of husband — who should be abandoned, deprived of his family, and cast in a despised role that seemed all-too-familiar to other friends: the stereotype of the Arab man living in Europe?

    An educated and thoroughly cosmopolitan man who had both studied in Europe and traveled extensively across America, Tariq had never really considered this possibility, that he could be “reduced to a cliché by colleagues and superiors alike.” “As a Frenchman,” Sami emphasizes to the court in an affidavit, “I find it sad to conclude that even today these insidious strategies are still the common lot of the Maghrebin minority,” in what amounts to an ongoing “stigmatization” of Arabs.

    Succeeding in gaining joint custody, Tariq took his sons earlier that fateful summer to Tunisia, a return to his homeland during which a stunning former lover echoed Sami’s observation of a pervasive ethnic stereotyping, and thickened his sense of displacement and alienation. Students of diaspora like James Clifford underscore the fragmented subjectivities of uprooted people like Tariq, emotionally tethered to old and new homes. As Clifford explains, many emigrants suspect that they will never be fully accepted in their new home, and carry specifically diasporic forms of longing, memory, and (dis)identification afflicting many minority and migrant populations, people like Tariq Abbassi and his creator.

    But each diasporic subjectivity is unique, as well. Descending onto the tarmac on a Tunis Air flight to Carthage with his sons that fateful summer, he experienced a “murky mix of panic and expectation and out-of-place alienation.” For him, going back home was “the quintessential second-nature experience of sameness and predictability,” the identical feelings that motivated him to leave Tunisia years before: “same anticipated descent, same mind vista, same visual fragments projected in mental space.” Tariq beautifully captures this delicate interweaving of both place and time, present and past as it exists in memory: “The wistful mind always everywhere warping and weaving effortlessly between here and there, now and then — as if the totality of time-space was one single glowing thread of presentness suspended in black eternity.” A profound affection for and indelible attachment to one’s homeland cannot adequately describe the mottled nature of this return, as Tariq began to dread the reunion with his family the minute he and his two boys cleared customs: “The initial show of high spirits was brittle, as I had anticipated … [his siblings’] joy quickly gave way to a melodramatic mood of verbal tiptoeing and embarrassed, half-hearted gestures.” His selfhood, inflected as it is by his experience of the diasporic, is more complicated than terms like “nostalgia,” “alienation,” and “homeland” can convey.

    As Tariq drives with his sons, the Tunisian landscape itself manifests a history of conquest and migration, a mirror of his own story. At the same time, it offers an implicit rejoinder of his proximity to the invidious stereotype Sami decries:

    The burning persistence of that age-old madness possessing the earth (the ancient spirits of the fields raging about us — precious land cunningly acquired by the Phoenicians, forcefully by the Romans, then the Arabs, the Turks, the Spaniards, the French); madness this country never bequeathed me, for better or worse — that headlong capacity for frenzied, decisive action which I had always admired in my compatriots.

    But is he really so incapable of frenzied action? By this point in the novel, our confidence in such self-assessments has been shaken. His former lover, a beautiful and exotic woman named Thouraya, with whom he spends an incomparable night of bliss while on his vacation, re-introduces the probability of his victimization by the prejudice to which Sami alluded in his affidavit. As she theorizes, the breakups of interracial couples in Europe are viewed differently than other separations, largely because Arab men are perceived as threats to the host society. She further explains to him that he is actually, in the eyes of many western Europeans, a category, not a person: the “Lone Arab Male.” Equally important, she speculates, he won’t see the category’s ramifications — he’ll feel them. The result is a psychical pressure that could precipitate disastrous implosions — or the kind of explosions his estranged wife feared. So even though in one refulgent moment Tariq reveals his optimism that “there might be real chance” of happiness for him and his sons, the intimation of disaster is never far away.

    And then it happens. And it happens with the savage irony that, while Tariq was enjoying a night out in Paris with a new lover, an enigmatic, playful, and sensual woman named Annaelle, tragedy strikes. Like his hopeful moment in Tunisia, but with even an element of wonder, Annaelle opens for him a new world of happiness and self-transformation: “I came to realize, once and for all, that I was no longer the same man: In embracing the world that she had created for us, I was stunned to find out that I had enough power in me to do these new things that were ours.” This surge of self-determinative power and confidence, this eruption of “energies and volitions” Tariq had always perceived as “fundamentally irreconcilable” with who he was, but now defines the “most exquisite self-created world” in which he and his lover luxuriate: the sensorium of the Jardin du Luxembourg, the whispers and caresses along flowing canals, the transformative space Annaelle had helped create and made wondrous. In this world, “everything was indeed possible.”

    The next sentences open a new chapter and introduce just the opposite kind of world: “Always the same walk — same pace, same stops, same duration.” This is the antithetical and antiseptic world of institutionalization after the tragic events of those early morning hours. Where do “true events” exist in a mind in which memories roll ceaselessly day and night? After a coma and suicide attempt, after chemical and hypnotic therapies, can the fractured mind even assimilate the results of forensic investigations and the interviewing of witnesses? Can one trust the narratives and explanations such inquiries produce? And then, inevitably, both sheer misery and the ruthless judiciary of the mind must assert their respective preeminence:

    With my emerging feelings of self-hate I almost simultaneously began to face this reality of self-pity and so I often found myself wavering between these two forces: disgust and anger at myself for being a criminally irresponsible father, followed by sorrow and sadness and intense grief at the sheer bottomlessness of my misfortune.

    The pleonastic quality of the phrasing — sorrow and sadness and grief — suggests the depths to which this poet-philosopher-father descends.

    And no right remembering, no happy forgetting, is possible: no horizon of appeased memory to approach, no salvific narrative to frame and thereby ameliorate traumatic injury. Like Tariq, albeit with less devastating effect, readers are left with the tyranny of memory and the deep fracturing of the subject. But, fortunately, that’s not all. For, although The Offering is at times painful and even heartbreaking, it is consistently beautiful. That is to say, the vicissitudes of memory, of dislocation, and of trauma aside — and it is impossible ever to put these totally aside in this stunning novel — el Moncef’s prose often rivals that of today’s most poetic and accomplished wordsmiths. For me, a myriad of passages in The Offering rival those in the work of a writer like John Banville, where one is simply dazzled by the sheer virtuosity of the language, the structure, and the rhythm. This soon evolves into a feeling so intense and delicious that one simply must pause to take it all in.


    Stephen Watt is Provost Professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. His most recent books include Beckett and Contemporary Irish Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and the forthcoming “Something Dreadful and Grand”: American Literature and the Irish-Jewish Unconscious (Oxford University Press, 2015).


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