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Yamen Manai: La Sérénade d’Ibrahim Santos [The Serenade of Ibrahim Santos]

Manai started writing this novel in 2007 and finished it in 2010. He planned its release in early 2011. However, the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution broke out in January 2011. As he says in the introduction to the novel, he does not know what the fate of this novel would have been if the country had still been in the hands of Bonnie and Clyde (a reference to President Ben Ali and his wife Leïla, who fled Tunisia on 14 January 2011 for Saudi Arabia). The book was published later that year and, as he continues, he has great hopes for the Revolution. Sadly, we know better.

This novel is not set in Tunisia but, rather, a fictitious, Spanish-speaking Caribbean island. It does not seem to be based on Cuba, the Dominican Republic or other similar Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries. Clearly, there are references to Tunisia in it but, presumably, relatively remote to escape the censor and any official retribution. Indeed, we start with a remote part of the island called Santa Clara. It was apparently founded some three hundred years ago by a bunch of drunks. They stumbled on it in a drunken orgy, when a group of men, accompanied by some ladies of the night, wandered off and came across the place. It had huge sugar canes, from which rum is made. They settled there, making and drinking rum. They were gradually joined by others: blacks, gypsies, Arabs, Jews, priests.

In the present day, the President-General of the country, Alvaro Benitez, is enjoying some Santa Clara rum. He wonders where it comes from and goes to look at a huge map of the country. There is no mention of Santa Clara. He calls his prime minister (who happens to be his younger and not very bright brother). He cannot help. Nor can anyone else. Army patrols are sent all over the country to find it. Eventually it is found by an army troop. They are horrified, when they arrive, to find that there are photos of General Burgos and even streets named after him, as he had been overthrown some twenty years previously by the current President-General and he is languishing in jail for his terrible crimes.

The people are summoned to learn of the political changes and everything has to change. Photos have to go. Streets names have to be changed. The old slogans have to go, to be replaced by new ones. The people do not care but when they learn that the prime minister is to visit in three days and, if anything is amiss, there will be serious trouble, they conform. Fortunately, Captain el Horno has one of the new flags. However, the local band needs to play the new anthem and no-one has the music. There is no choice but for the captain and his lieutenant to sing it to the band leader, the eponymous Ibrahim Santos, and he will endeavour to transcribe it. Their singing is, of course, appalling but he more or less manages to get the tune. He also writes down the words, which are, like many national anthems, appalling. I will spare you the details but they are something of a cross between The Marseillaise and the Tunisian national anthem.

The visit goes well but the President, who knows nothing about economics and interregional relations, has focussed on military matters and also his vision of agricultural self-sufficiency for the country, to avoid having to attend international meetings on agricultural trade. (It is no doubt coincidence that Tunisia has aimed for agricultural self-sufficiency). As a result, a recent graduate in agricultural engineering – top of the whole year in all of the country – called Joaquín Calderón, is sent to Santa Clara to “”improve” their agricultural methods. We follow his life and his adventures. He is not, of course, wholly welcomed by the people of Santa Clara.

We also follow the antecedents of our eponymous hero, Ibrahim Santos, who is descended from a famous Arab poet who could predict the weather, as Ibrahim can, too. Indeed, the clash between Ibrahim’s weather prediction and Joaquín’s barometer is an early indicator of the culture clash between Santa Clara and the national government.

Of course, things do not work out. The laissez-faire inhabitants of Santa Clara clash with Joaquín’s more rigid approach and he has to call in the soldiers, with the inevitable disastrous consequences. Not only is his approach a disaster for the village and the villagers but also for the rum. When a cyclone (predicted by Ibrahim rather than the barometer) hits the village and the Minister of Agriculture tastes the rum, the clash is only going to get worse.

This is a very enjoyable, mocking satire, showing in a not very subtle way the difference between a people who have their own way of doing things, who want to remain free and who despise authority, any authority, on the one hand, and a controlling, rigid authority, on the other hand. The comparison with the then current (i.e. pre-Jasmine Revolution) situation in Tunisia is very obvious. However, it is a lively story, very readable and interesting to see the Tunisian Revolution forecast in this way. Interesting, though, is the fact that the two sides seem to have only one thing in common – a love for rum, which might well be appropriate in the Caribbean but perhaps somewhat less so in Muslim Tunisia.

Publishing history

First published in 2011 by Elyzad
No English translation
Published in German as Die Serenaden des Ibrahim Santos by austernbank, Munich in 2015