Albert Memmi: La Statue du sel (Pillar of Salt)
Memmi’s novel is an autobiographical account of his growing up in Tunisia but, most importantly, it is the story of an outsider. The narrator is French but, as a Tunisian, he is not really French and he is a Tunisian but, as a Jew, he is not really Tunisian. In short, in all aspects, he is an outsider. He recounts his growing up in Tunisia, approximately from the end of World War I to just past the end of World War II. We get considerable details on the Jewish community in Tunis and on their relations with the French and Arab communities, which are generally not too bad, apart from occasional insults. Our narrator, – Alexandre Mordekhaï Benillouche – seems to be something of a genius (and not shy in telling us this) and does well at school, though his mother is illiterate and his father a poor saddler.
Memmi tells an excellent story and we learn about the area, his school, the family and how well he does at school, so much so that the local community gives him special tuition with the local pharmacist. Alexandre is interested in medicine and in becoming a doctor but the pharmacist tries to steer him to pharmacy. Eventually, however, he moves towards philosophy. It is only in the latter part of the book that things get more interesting. We learn about anti-semitism, firstly because of the insults he and the other Jews have to endure in school and elsewhere. We hear about a pogrom against the Jewish community. However, it is when the Germans arrive that things really get bad. As he points out, while it is not as bad as the situation for many Jews in Europe, they did not know that at the time. The Jews are abused, attacked and raped. Finally, they are sent to a labour camp. Alexandria has a lung spot so he temporarily avoids working in the camp. However, when there is a quota, he eventually volunteers and tells us of a fairly harrowing tale, including a possible attempt to kill all the Jews when the Allied attack threatens to push the Germans and Italians out. Alexandre and a few others do manage to escape and the story of their escape, across the desert, with scattered Germans and Italians in the way, is very well told. They do get back to Tunis and survive but, after the war, things are back to normal. He is no longer French and still feels an outsider.
Clearly a Jew in an Arab country under control of a European power is not in a strong position and this is made clear. The Jewish community struggles to survive and, more or less, does, till the Germans come. Memmi tells us an interesting story of how difficult this survival was and how he just about made it.
First published in 1953 by Correa
First English translation 1955 by Criterion
Translated by Edouard Roditi