I was reading the second half of The Offering on the plane from Los Angeles to Boston and, for the first time in my life, I wished there would be a delay in landing so that I could find out “who done it.” The novel that had started as a painful story about love gone wrong—and about a father trying to find a way of relating to his two estranged sons—had suddenly turned into a gripping detective story of murder, mayhem, and mental illness. When we approached Boston, my wish was granted: the captain announced that bad weather in the city was placing us in a holding pattern for an hour. Great! I thought, as I settled back into my reading, aware that the circling of the plane above the storm clouds mirrored the spiraling rhythm of the novel’s ever-darkening plot: layer by layer, the story brought me closer to the (terrifying) landing zone. It’s just that when I finally landed, I discovered that I was not where I expected to be but had, instead, landed in Carthage, Tunisia, where the story both begins and ends. The novel, in short, culminates in a plot twist that changes everything, leaving the reader breathless and disoriented even as it offers the satisfaction of revelation (and therefore closure).
I am up against a challenge here: how am I to discuss this novel without giving away the plot elements that make it such a rewarding reading experience? The obvious answer is that I cannot talk about the narrative—about what “happens”—but must stick to the story’s emotional and existential resonances. There is much to choose from in this regard: love and its loss; the bitterness of finding oneself betrayed by those one has trusted; the tenuous, ever-threatened bond between parents and children; the insane (but sometimes wonderful) things that happen between siblings; the fierce loyalties of friendship; the sensual details of cooking; as well as the harsh realities of immigration, displacement, and racism. This last topic alone could fill the pages of a scholarly tome, for the novel’s protagonist, Tariq Abbassi, has left Tunisia to study philosophy at the Sorbonne but ends up, after completing his doctorate (and by the time the reader catches up with him), running a high-class Middle Eastern restaurant in Bordeaux while aspiring to be a poet. Tariq’s highly cerebral nature, along with his literary ambitions, war against the stereotype of the Arab immigrant to France, and for the most part he seems to experience French society as enabling—a respite from the traumas of his family history and the political struggles of Tunisia—rather than oppressive. This, however, does not prevent this society from wounding him. Some of the most startling moments of the novel arise when Tariq—who sees himself primarily as a mild-mannered poet-intellectual—comes in contact with a racist culture that by definition bars an Arab man (the angry, raving fanatic) from this self-definition.
Most fundamentally, however, The Offering is a contemplation on the relationship between loss and creativity, trauma and rebirth. The novel’s enigmatic title functions on multiple levels, the most philosophical of which is arguably the question of what one has to “offer”—to sacrifice, as it were—in order to conjure something truly worthwhile into existence. Everything, Salah el Moncef seems to suggest. In the course of the novel, Tariq loses more and more, to the point that there really is nothing left to lose, yet each loss seems to replenish his creative powers so that, at the end, in a state of unimaginable suffering, he finally attains what he has been after all his life: a perfect poem of pristine formal beauty. The poem is called Night Owl and I reproduce it here:
Oh, you know: that hour.
The smeared rim of heaven
has turned to cold crystal;
it is the last champagne blush
in the opalescent sky:
The light-dregs of day
at the bottom of a lonely glass.
But the owl has descended,
preening on his perch;
a few last touches before the night hour—
his time of glory,
when all the rest of creation
will be floundering, floundering
in formless mud and murk.
Oh, you know, you know:
When his gaze begins to brim up
with a thousand sparks of amber,
crackling with the memory of a million noons—
the encapsulated sparkle of eons
at his command,
lighting up his voyage into the night.
This poem, which arrives with incongruous gentility in the novel’s final pages, when the reader is galloping toward the finale, is worth waiting for. And the novel’s narrative makes it clear that it is born of pure loss. This is not to say that the novel fetishizes loss as the ultimate kernel of creativity. It manages to convey the stark brutality of loss so effectively, so relentlessly, that it forces the reader to wonder whether, in the final analysis, there is anything that could ever compensate for the pain undergone. That is, it is not at all clear that the creative impulse that arises from the wreckage of Tariq’s life can even begin to make up for what he has had to give up—to “offer.” Yet there is also a strong sense that something unfathomably precious does emerge from the debris. Interestingly, the fledgling Phoenix rising from the ashes is ultimately not (or at least not only) the poem I have cited but—and here I cannot help but give away a bit of plot—rather an unexpected connection to a mother whom Tariq has long experienced as a forbidding fortress of silent suffering but who is mercifully revealed as a kindred-spirit in possession of an immense imaginative capacity and an equally immense reservoir of emotional generosity that has been carefully tucked away from the prying eyes of those capable of causing devastation. If trauma—the agony of loss, betrayal, solitude, and suffering—has been passed intergenerationally from mother to son, the reader discovers that something more affirmative has also made the passage, something that was in danger of getting lost in translation (between generations, between genders, between cultures, between languages), and this is the gift of being able to touch the other, reach the other, comfort the other, and even caress the other, through the written word (a poem, a letter, a novel).
The Offering illustrates what French thinkers—Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, and Julia Kristeva, among others—have been particularly good at expressing, namely that at the core of human “being” resides nothingness, and that in order to continue to “be,” one must find a way to translate this nothingness into something: a word, an image, an affect, an attachment. The melancholy message of French thought has repeatedly been that there is no meaning without non-meaning, no sense without nonsense, no creativity without despair, and no love without loss. Simply put: if human beings were completely devoid of lack, they would also be completely devoid of desire, with the result that the world would have nothing to offer them; their arrogant self-sufficiency would generate a debilitating, soul-stifling boredom. From this perspective, the nothingness at the heart of being, while certainly a source of a great deal of misery, is an existential opportunity: what forces us to venture into the world in search of things—objects, lovers, friends, passions, ambitions, and so on—that might (however temporarily, however tentatively) make up for our gnawing sense that something is missing from our lives. Sadness, in this sense, is the somber lining of everything that is meaningful about human life. As Kristeva explains in Black Sun, the ability to “remake nothingness”—say, to pluck a poem out of a confused, feverish stream of consciousness, as Tariq manages to do—is “the royal way through which humanity transcends the grief of being apart.”
On the one hand, Tariq’s trials exceed the limits of “ordinary” human suffering: his losses are irredeemable, his anguish incurable, and his grief irrepressible (“uncompromisingly rigid and willful,” as he himself puts it). On the other, poetry—and the written word, more generally speaking—functions in his life as a means to manage misfortune, to create a barrier against utter abjection. This barrier is terribly flimsy; it is always on the verge of collapsing under the weight of the pain pressing on it. But against all odds—miraculously—it holds, for the novel repeatedly foregrounds the manner in which writing, for Tariq, serves as a lifeline to meaning in a world that seems hell-bent on depriving him of it.
Besides writing poetry, Tariq keeps a journal where he jots down not merely the events of his life but also the minutest movements of his interiority. The journal in fact functions as a site of an almost obsessive cathexis, the place where Tariq records everything from his anger, resentment, and disillusionment to the trusting sweetness of his sons and the electrifying jolt of fresh romance. Regardless of how the day ends—in hopeless desolation, drunken revelry, passionate love-making, or banal weariness—the journal is where Tariq stops before sleeping (or, as is often the case, instead of sleeping). The reader quickly realizes that the journal serves as a collection of scraps of thought, emotion, and impression that Tariq hopes will one day become a novel. In this sense, the journal is a metaphor for the (actual) novel that the reader is in the process of devouring. Indeed, through the rambling journal entries of his protagonist, el Moncef offers the reader a torrent of observations about the demanding craft of writing, such as the following: “You have to keep your eyes on that something you want to net—hard as it is to do that. Setting up the right conditions to create that fragile something out of nothing—the first embryonic seed that will keep you going. The initial doubts of writing are what’s most exhilarating about writing in the first place: it’s a gamble most of the time. You start something even while you’re in the dark about what it’s doing and where it’s going.”
Noteworthy here is the theme of creating something out of nothing that I have sought to tease out. But equally noteworthy is the fact that one of the many pleasures of reading The Offering is the sense that el Moncef has indeed managed to “net” something that is exceedingly difficult to net: the very scraps of thought, emotion, and impression that Tariq is so desperate to trap between the covers of his journal. Beyond this, what el Moncef captures with unusual dexterity and deftness are—and I again quote his own metacommentary on the process of writing—“even the most commonplace scenes and sounds—especially the most commonplace scenes and sounds.” Perhaps the most exquisite parts of the novel are the intricate evocations of place—of the streets and parks of Paris, the houses and beaches of Tunisia, the fine drizzle and furtive fog of Brittany—that form the backdrop of the story’s unfolding. The author manages to bring the Left Bank of Paris, particularly the narrow lanes, cafés, and restaurants of the rue Mouffetard neighborhood, alive in such vivid detail that the reader has the uncanny sense of stepping right into the scenes that the characters inhabit. Likewise, the depictions of the ever-shifting hues, shapes, and tonalities of the ocean—both in Tunisia and Brittany—are painted with such a delicate but controlled touch that the reader experiences them in all their sensuous richness. The textures of Tunisia—its sights, sounds, scents, and other sensory qualities—leap off the page with agile but robust intensity. Brittany, in turn, is shrouded in muffled mystery, as in the passage below:
On a blazing summer day, coming out of the water:
The gentle curves and the shadowy hollows of the Breton country east of the gray-ribbon coastal road—pulsating ever so quietly in the shimmer of the afternoon heat, sprawled like the soft forms of a sleeping woman;
the salt-and-fern fragrance of a land baked and burnished in all the hues of gold, copper, and bronze;
and those wind-braving lone pines—still now, in the scorched stillness.
El Moncef’s prose, in short, achieves the quality of poetry, which is fitting for a novel about an aspiring poet. Consider, for instance, the following depiction, this time from Tunisia: “To our right, the craggy mountainous country was a pinkish pale green in the afterglow—the smoky green of sparse Mediterranean brush; and to the left, there was the massive sheer cliff that formed the eastern face of the Korbous Cape with the darkening ink-blue of the bay at its bottom, gathered into a ruffled strip of snow-white froth shimmering on the puckered hem of the shoreline.” The Offering is filled with such mesmerizing sentences—sentences where the reader can lose herself in rapt contemplation of the sheer elegance of expression. In this context, I cannot keep myself from fixating on a seemingly insignificant aspect of the narrative: the fact that, in his most traumatized state, Tariq discovers that English is the language that allows him to best communicate his emotional turmoil. English in fact becomes, for Tariq, a sanctuary of sorts, a way to gain some much-needed distance from the traumatic events he is navigating.
As an immigrant who many moons ago deliberately adopted English as an armor against trauma (albeit not trauma of the same acuteness as what Tariq experiences), I find this narrative detail fascinating, particularly as it counters the expected story: the story of a foreign language as a desolate place of alienation and dislocation. Tariq exchanges Arabic and French for English because there is something about English that brings him solace. The fact that the language is English may be unimportant—or it may be immensely important. There is no way to know from the story. But the larger point is worth lingering upon: speaking a foreign tongue is not always the forlorn, tragic experience of inner erosion that it is frequently assumed to be, particularly for immigrants. Though it is certainly true that, for those who have been violently displaced, the alien land with its alien language may feel inhospitable, for others—particularly those who have moved voluntarily—it can be a way of finally forging a life that feels livable. In a narrative about loss yielding to creativity, trauma yielding to rebirth, Tariq’s embrace of English as a means to go on in the aftermath of unspeakable pain may not be an insignificant detail after all. And it must surely hold a special meaning for el Moncef, who chose to write The Offering in English even though he had other languages—languages, moreover, that are illustrious for their literary achievements—at his fingertips.
On one level, The Offering is a story about the struggles and hard-earned joys of everyday life: lazy, meandering days at the park, on the beach, and in the maze of city streets; family reunions, family recipes, and family squabbles; the anxieties and rewards of fatherhood; and the promises and betrayals of love. On another level, it is a story about—to once again borrow Tariq’s words—“the pyrotechnics of fate,” about sudden events that change absolutely everything so that there is no going back, no return to how things once were. But perhaps most poignantly, it is also a story about “the fickle place of convergence where the miracle of beautiful creation is born,” as well as about the sinking realization that “every miracle comes with a price tag.” It is hard to come out of this story feeling hopeful. But it is also hard to come out of it feeling completely hopeless. This, I would say, is one reason this novel is so riveting. At the end, one is left with a profound sense of perplexed ambiguity—just as is often the case in “real” life.