The following is an excerpt from Colette Fellous's novel, This Tilting World translated from the French by Sophie Lewis. Fellous is the author of more than twenty novels, including Aujourd’hui, for which she received the Prix Marguerite Duras, and La Préparation de la vie, in which she pays homage to her mentor Roland Barthes. A former publisher and radio producer for France Culture, she lives between France and Tunisia. Sophie Lewis translates fiction and other literature from French and Portuguese.
The phone rang, I heard the news and I collapsed. It was a Friday, two weeks ago, in the baking sun. I was down in the village buying a box of Safia water and raisins from Raf Raf, the ones that taste lusciously of roses. In front of the supermarket, the fish sellers were stacking slender sea bream on piles of ice, the yellow taxis were circling the roundabout, a man was selling Barbary figs out of his cart, from her seat beneath a tree a woman was hawking tabouna flatbreads from an old La Marsa basket, her hands tattooed with henna, she rearranged a shawl with big purple and yellow flowers on it around her face. I answered after two rings, I think people hurried to their balconies when they heard my cry, they wanted to help, but I picked myself up, I said it’s nothing I’ll be fine thank you. I always automatically say it will be fine even when it won’t. I walked on down the alley, shaking, haggard, toward Avenue du 14 Janvier, utterly lost, I recognized the whine of the little train that goes to La Marsa, the one that almost ran me over a few years before. The heat muffled every sound, it was eleven in the morning and already almost thirty-five degrees, days and nights of the country barely holding out against the relentless furnace. I glared at my phone, it had played a foul trick on me: it’s my friend, in Greece, he was out on his boat, his heart, I’ve just found out, that’s why I screamed, forgive me. That’s what I wasn’t able to say to the man who’d appeared bare-chested on his balcony and wanted to come down and help me: Alain has just, he’s dead, I can’t, forgive me.
Will I even be able to leave this house, to leave this country?
Thank you, I whispered it in Arabic, very politely, and I added still in Arabic: Life be with you. All day long here we repeat life be with you, it’s another way of saying thank you, we say it when we take our change, when we ask how are you, when answering someone’s smile, when it’s morning or when it’s evening, when we’re happy for someone else’s fortune and we show it (then it’s they who say it to us), life be with you; magical, protective words, a talisman, as if upon speaking it we sense that a mere breath could blow us away, there and then, and that talisman, the words that say life be with you, will ward off death, we say it automatically, without really thinking, then one day a life is blown away for good. Thank you, I said it three times, for my father always insisted that I never forget to say thank you. I know I say it far too much and that it often backfires but it’s a habit, an old-fashioned way of holding on to him, of infusing all the lands around us with his presence, I mean that my father’s face was his whole life, his life was the air he breathed, it was everything he saw and everything I saw with him, all the gestures we made to each other, all the looks we exchanged too, and our silences of course, and perhaps even what I didn’t think to see when he was alive or that I couldn’t see when I wasn’t there. It was what I forgot to tell him and all that I forgot to ask him when there was still time. Yet my father didn’t have any great educational principles, and I’ve no idea how my mother and he made ends meet while bringing up their five children, being themselves two urchins lost in the world, but those things, saying thank you, studying, honoring every moment, loving life, respecting others’ lives, laughing, never giving trouble, giving joy, these mattered to him and he imparted them to us in simple ways, by laughing too, by the odd little affectionate tap on the thigh, by shyly twinkling his eyes to show that nothing was very serious really, that everything would turn out fine, or by shrugging awkwardly, playing the clown: that’s life, that’s how it is, you have to say thank you, it can’t be helped. We used to watch him and laugh, we didn’t know what to make of it: Was he teasing us or for real? At the very top of his back, on the left, there was a little knob of fat that fascinated me and bothered me a little too, he also had a few long, straight hairs on his shoulders, like head hairs, I couldn’t look at those for long, I preferred to focus on his smile.
Now all that is over.
Lining the terrace, candles set in Sadika’s amber-tinted glass vases make a kind of prayer. The night air, so mild in these parts.
I am calm just now, oddly calm and confident, in a country gone up in flames. Calm and incarcerated. Calm and damaged. The lighthouse’s circling beam sweeps the sea, the cliffs, the great wrought-iron bays, and comes around again. The sea, the cliffs, the silence. On the last page of the book I wrote in this house, accompanied by the tireless circling of that beam, I remained silent before my own constant question. To stay or to leave? To go on or to stop? Until I wrote the last sentence, I didn’t know if this book would close with my departure, I wanted it to decide for me. I would ask: Will I even be able to leave this house, to leave this country? Could this be the right moment, now, as the book is finished? But we could give no reply, the book and I. I reflected for a long time, then I gave up, I left the window open for the night to come in, with the obstinate dance of the lighthouse beam and Sadika’s candleholder standing on the blue table, its friendly, forgiving flame, sweet Sadika, I put on music. “El Desierto.” The voice of Lhasa, the low throb of the band, I gathered them close in my arms: the night, the song, the sea grown black and the few conspiring stars, I clasped them all very close, I shut my eyes, and this meant I would come back, it was a promise. Today is different. Tourists have been murdered, yesterday, on the beach of the Hotel Riu Imperial Marhaba, in the port of El Kantaoui. We have murdered our guests. Others died in the Bardo museum in March, all murdered. They disembarked at the port of La Goulette from their ships, the Splendida and the Costa Fascinosa, they took the cruise ships’ standard Mediterranean tour (all the small crafts merchants know that Wednesday is a good day, the cruise ships’ day is their best in the week, even those who speak only Arabic know the word for cruise ship), you’ll have a grand day out seeing the old medina of Tunis, the ruins at Carthage, the glories of Sidi-Bou-Saïd, an eleven-o’clock tea with toasted almonds at the Café des Délices to admire the view of one of the world’s loveliest bays and then, right after that, you’ll visit the Bardo and see its marvelous mosaics. Our guests have been killed. Deaths on the Libyan border, for months now, others at Mount Chaambi, soldiers, policemen, servicemen. Militants for freedom murdered on the thresholds of their homes, Chokri Belaïd, Mohamed Brahimi. Tunisians have been killed. Bewilderment reigns in the streets, in all the faces, in the substance of the air, bewilderment and grief, the living body of our country has been wounded, its unique history disfigured. And now the whole country will be shunned by the rest of the world.
It all happened in the same period, over a few, short months. In Paris, the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the one at the Porte-de-Vincennes kosher supermarket in January.
The living body of our country has been wounded, its unique history disfigured.
The Bardo in March. Alain two weeks ago, and yesterday the beach at Sousse. Always on a Wednesday or a Friday. Of course Alain’s death should not be on this list, it has nothing to do with the others, his was an accidental death, a heart attack, most likely. The others were murders, premeditated crimes, attacks. But these collective shocks, these blows to our bodies and our personal lives, have become interleaved with Alain’s death, with the shock of that death, in the heat of the day, down in the village streets. He died on his sailboat, in mid-ocean, in the space of a few minutes.
I could talk about that death; I haven’t the strength to discuss the others. This tilting world, how can we talk about it, make sense of it? Only by naming the appalling blow these deaths have dealt each one of us, the deep wound they have gouged that can never be healed, the birth of a new kind of warfare, and this terror that is taking root everywhere, even within our own bodies.
Yet through Alain’s death, the violence of these assassinations reverberates, all the men and women whose lives have been torn out in a matter of seconds, in an office, a supermarket, stepping out of a bus, on a beach, a diffuse violence that watches and awaits us; but also the deaths of all those attempting to flee the terror in their own countries and who are drowning at sea, thousands and thousands of bodies tossed in this very Mediterranean Sea. As if his death, its happening almost concomitant to these many others, were an allegory for our times, for the world’s metamorphosis and for the gradual disappearance of its previous incarnation, that world to which Alain, like so many others, had been committed from adolescence. A world in which the ambition, the dream, the utopia were to conceive and build our freedom and our independence, a world in thrall to creation, to art, beauty, pleasure, discovery, modernity, love, to the search for new forms of language and of expression. To compensate for the great distress that had characterized his childhood, that abandonment, he had chosen literature. Alain, Alain. I repeat his name softly while lighting the last candles. He used to like looking at the sea from this terrace, he would lean out to it, as if making sure it was all still there. He taught me how to find my bearings: there’s Korbous, that’s the island of Zembra and the smaller one, right beside it, is Zembretta. Over there’s El Haouaria, where we went last summer, but you can’t see it from here, and right on the horizon, can you see, that’s the route to Palermo.
He had forged his passions for literature and travel into a total reality, he had raised them into his kingdom, a glorious delusion: it’s words that create things, he would say, books created the world. Until the day he decided to stop writing, in 2009. At first the idea grew covertly inside him, a kind of emergency exit he could bolt to during the struggle to write a new book; at first he didn’t tell anyone. To stop writing after creating an oeuvre focused on the search for a perfection he knew to be unattainable, only to be found in Antiquity, in mythology, or in the ancient eras he almost felt he had lived through. It was then, secretly, in the way we feel a fever gradually coming on or how we touch our forehead to check, not altogether sure of being ill, just a little shaky, a sense of weakness in the legs, that he began to doubt his powers and his books. He no longer believed in literature’s utopia, he must have been aiming too high. Literature could no longer be his one and only god, it didn’t work anymore, better to raise the white flag and give up: Maybe I’ve nothing more to say, that’s what he wrote in his diary. He left literature as one leaves a country, as one goes into exile, as one abandons one’s history. And by slow steps, he settled into silence. “Heart and soul,” he emphasized in May 2012, just before his first time out on the yacht called to an alternative utopia: “I have withdrawn, alienated, walled myself inside my silence, since I refuse to allow one more book the right to force me to give it life. A deafening silence that gnaws at my body, that cuts me to the quick, but in which I’ll persist, like a man gripping the guardrail with both hands as he gazes at the abyss into which he can’t stop wanting to leap. My silence commits me to a voiceless struggle not only against this world of ours and all its noise, but also against all those writers who blithely go on believing in it.”
For Alain the Mediterranean had become the work to be lived, rather than written.
The simple formula he’d found, the one meant to liberate him but that became a prison of his own making, was: “I write no more.” The briefest of slim volumes, written a few weeks before January 11, 2011, as the social and political situation in Tunisia deteriorated, growing more rotten with each day. He was no longer sure he wanted to stay in this country: Why not move to Crete with Sadika, his beloved, his refuge; why not make a new life there? He wasn’t sure, he hesitated. Tunisia was suffocating him, it no longer glowed with the light that had so enchanted him, everything had become so constricted, not enough space for writing, no, this wasn’t the life he had dreamed of. He had even noted in his diary, presciently, that he feared his decision might herald a disaster to come, something of wider, more collective impact: “Sometimes I wonder if I write no more might not anticipate some fundamental collapse, some kind of disaster on a much greater scale.” Going back to his words and to his voice now, right after the attack at Sousse, staring at them, touching them, to try to close in on their secret.
He died like a Greek hero, with an unheard howl, in the middle of the Aegean Sea, at the helm of his yacht, where he loved to be. He died “on the surface of the watery plain,” as Théramène says in Racine’s Phèdre when we come to his great account of Hippolyte’s death. “On the Surface of the Watery Plain” was the title Alain had given his logbook, begun for his first Mediterranean crossing. For the book’s epigraph, he had chosen a line from Plato: “Living, dead, or on the high seas.” But the terrifying monster that rose from the water and killed Hippolyte in Théramène’s tale was this time conceived within Alain’s body, in his own heart. His life ended in the homeland of those he had loved and exalted, so we might imagine he had chosen this death, even without knowing or inviting it. He who was forever trying to recover a trace of the Greek gods, to follow the threads of mythology’s great journeyers, to seek out the places where the prophets had wintered, to hark back to Odysseus’s world as well as the Ancients’, to check his readings of Plato or Thucydides, or to head off on the trail of Pythagoras, to the grotto on Mount Ida in Crete, to see with his own eyes whether the mouth of hell truly gaped right there. And he had with childlike jubilation found traces of Zeus, Cronos, and even of the she-goat Amaltheia: Look, it was to this cave that they came, he would say to Sadika, look, it really was right here. And his eyes would be shining. On each journey he would discover and rediscover, and he loved to write it all down, to transform it into fiction. For a few moments, he would become Orpheus, Odysseus, Virgil, Homer, Herodotus: the page he touched and covered in writing now became a shrine. But the decision to stop writing and to announce his cessation publicly tore a rift in him, sowed a distress much greater than he’d anticipated: we thought him swallowed by his own void. Like a reiteration of those childhood times he used to call “the dead years.” By ceasing to live as he’d always lived, that is, sitting down at his desk every morning for forty years, always with a new book to write somewhere inside him, and above all, by announcing this, he had with one blow shattered his entire life and undermined his dreams. He spoke to no one of his distress, or only in a few words, punctuated by a shy, self-deprecating laugh. But his personal tragedy arose from his inability to back out: he had declared his retirement, he had to do it. In fact, he’d condemned himself. He still had his love for Sadika, the woman for whom he had dropped everything and with whom he was living in Tunisia, near the Gammarth Forest. Sadika and the force of his dreams, his desires, his untiring curiosity.
He also still had the sea, his newest love.
Yes, at some point the sea replaced his faith in literature, now he wanted to sail it up and down and traverse it as you do the chapters of a novel you’re shaping from one day to the next, from page to page, from port to port, in the joy of advancing, of discovering, of being alone between the sky and the water, far from those who had thoughtlessly murdered his first passion. For Alain the Mediterranean had become the work to be lived, rather than written. Now and then he seemed comforted by it but that was a façade, perhaps of pride, for how, at this point, could he ever go back? To set sail, far from the towns, far from those who—as ever according to him—had abandoned him, to cover kilometers, slowly, to keep on going, not to feel his decision as a failure: this would be his new endeavor. I was watching him describe the itinerary of his first voyage to me, I followed the line of the red felt-tip across the map pinned to the wall in the big dining room at Raoued, he was stoking his excitement by describing the research he’d done into the art and science of navigation, he pushed out his chest for courage, to prove he was happy, and I believed him, for of course he was. I admired his capacity to discover a new world so quickly, I congratulated him, a little surprised but happy, too, at the sight of such passion.
He bought a single-masted yacht, the Phocea, named after the Ancient Greek city in Asia Minor, on the Gulf of Izmir. The name was not his choice but that of his former landlord, a very elegant man of seventy: I’m selling her because I feel I’m no longer strong enough to steer, I’m beginning to grow old, it wouldn’t be wise to go on, but it’s a wrench for me, the man had said. Alain went with Sadika to France, to Aigues-Mortes, to collect the yacht. But everything I’m saying here troubles me because I’m implying that his death was a suicide, a logical death brought on by his break with literature, his reason for living. No—he died brutally, in a moment of happiness, never realizing that it was the end. A pause in time, nothing more. With the sea all around. His last whispered words were: “We’ll go on.” He didn’t know these were his last words, he really meant the yacht should continue on its course, not stop before the next stage, that’s what he’d decided, in this too he must not waver, they’d soon reach Santorini. There is something grandiose about his death, like a scene you could slot straight into a classical tragedy, with Théramène’s parting words: “Forgive my grief. For me this picture spells / Eternal sorrow and perpetual tears.”
Excerpted from This Tilting World by Colette Fellous translated by Sophie Lewis. Published by Two Lines Press in the United States and Les Fugitives in the United Kingdom. Copyright © 2019 by Colette Fellous. Translation copyright © 2019 by Sophie Lewis.