Review: Hassouna Mosbahi’s ‘Solitaire’ pays tribute to stories from around the world

CHICAGO (Arabnews): Hassouna Mosbahi’s “Solitaire” takes readers through a day in the life of Tunisian intellectual, Yunus, a professor of the French language, with expertise in 19th-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert.

Moving to the coast after retirement, he finds himself on his 60th birthday, alone and unsure. Reaching a milestone birthday is the catalyst that plunges him into his past: The books he read, the politics that had shaped him and the world around him, and the unmendable relationships he had left behind.

While he thought retirement in Nabeul, Tunisia would have allowed him the solitude he had been dreaming of, it instead floods his mind with memories, some he revels in and some from which he cannot escape.

Translated into English by William Maynard Hutchins in 2022, readers meet a man who laments the change that has transformed the country in which he has lived his entire life.

Tunisia is no longer the place of his past, where old people were held in esteem, prayer was silent, books were discussed, and politics were revolutionary.

Yunus’ life does not seem to have shaped itself as he had hoped. He is divorced, hardly sees his children, and his relationship with women is challenging, as they only serve a purpose according to his needs.

His solitude sweeps up a past of the Sufi masters who lived near his childhood village and whose insight he lived by, the fiction and non-fiction stories that explored the politics, history, and society of Tunisia, North Africa, and the Arab world, and the friends who left for Europe only to come back to a country they did not recognize.

Originally published in 2012 but translated in 2022, Mosbahi’s novel is an insight into men who have endured many changing seasons, suffered the absence of loved ones, and transformed with age.

He explores Islamic and Arab history, crusading conquests, and territorial battles. His worlds meld together as he compares Flaubert to ninth-century Arab writer Al-Jahiz while using 14th-century Ibn Khaldun’s philosophy to explain modern issues.

At its core, the novel is an homage to stories and histories from around the globe. His world is as large or as small as the company he keeps, the books he reads, and the histories that play out in front of him.

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