The Scorpion

by Albert Memmi, translated by Eleanor Levieux. Grossman Publishers, 1971. 244 pages.

A scorpion, when surrounded by a ring of embers and unable to escape, will sting itself to death out of rage and frustration. Or will it? Perhaps this is an old wives' tale, or perhaps the scorpion only stings itself accidentally, or perhaps it stings itself and appears to be dead, but recovers after all the onlookers are gone.

This ambiguous image frames The Scorpion, an ingeniously constructed existential novel set in Tunisia's first years of independence from France. Presented as a collage of texts commenting upon one another, the book paints a picture of a country and people struggling to discover their own identity.

Emile, a well-known and politically engaged Tunisian writer, has disappeared, leaving a desk drawer stuffed with seemingly disconnected writings and clippings. Emile's brother Marcel, an ophthalmologist and surgeon, sets out to make sense of this mass of documents: some evidently fictional, some apparently excerpts from a journal (but with artistic liberties taken with the truth), and others quotations from unidentified sources. The Scorpion, which includes all this in addition to a few photographs and the comments of Marcel, is the result of this labor. The documents are distinguished by different colors of ink corresponding to their nature, and Albert Memmi (the real-life author) regrets in an introductory note that the publisher was unable to print the novel in various colors as well, instead making do with contrasting typefaces.

Memmi, it turns out, is also the family name of Emile and Marcel: just one of the many identity games played by the author. The brothers belong to the Jewish branch of a family that divided between Judaism and Islam at some point in the past. Early in the book, Emile traces the roots of the Memmis with the help of various clues, including an ancient medal, but cannot decide whether his people came from North Africa, from Italy, or from both places. Emile describes his childhood in a ramshackle castle on the coast, not far from the capital, where he explores the disused staircases and breaks into the closed-off rooms, and where the oppressive humidity finally forces his asthmatic father to move the family to the city.

The subject matter of The Scorpion darkens and expands as the book proceeds, moving from harmless childhood memories, to a family tragedy presented in varying fictional disguises, to the violent, unsettled period of Tunisian independence, and finally to the questions that face both brothers under the new regime.

Marcel's attitude to his brother's writings changes, too. The doctor is scornful of his brother's flights of fancy in the early passages, though he himself waxes poetic when he describes the wonders of the human eye, and the courage and self-control required to perform eye surgery. Gradually he recognizes the truths in what Emile has written about their family and about their country. He presents "The Four Thursdays," an extraordinary series of conversations in which a former student of Emile's returns to confront him with his own ideas about identity and loyalty, almost without commentary. In a sense, immersing himself in his brother's mind and struggling with his ideas may be the way that the doctor prepares himself for a decision that he reaches only at the end of the book.

From The Scorpion:

I was born at La Goulette, a little Berber port near the capital, only a few hundred paces from the Walls and the Fort of Charles V, which are still standing. From the time I was born until I was four years old, so that I still remember it -- like remembering a shadow that has been wrapped around all the houses I have lived in since -- my parents, along with two other families, lived in a kind of small palace full of cupolas and terraces, verandas and corners that jutted out onto the beach and that were periodically linked and ringed by the sea. This meant that although the house was delightful in the summer, the humidity had made much of it unfit for habitation. In one of the bedrooms which, oddly enough, had not a single window and was constantly battered by waves during the severest part of the winter, the humidity was so dense that the room was filled with a heavy mist. Although we were frightened by the almost total darkness of the place, we had chosen it as our hamman and, in the light of little oiled paper torches, we played at taking the ritual bath.