Now and Then
The introduction to this book is everything I can’t stand about literature. The book itself is everything I love about it.
I’ll start with the good parts of this book because there are so many to talk about. What sticks with me most after finishing Now and Then is that Salah el Moncef has a gift for crafting. I don’t just mean the craft of writing, though he excels at that as well. What I mean is that he is able to craft each story into a masterpiece just as much as a metalworker might craft a delicate-seeming statue out of steel.
The first story in the collection, “Benghazi,” largely takes place during the arrival of Mussolini in the title city. Though that is the obvious reading of the story, its core is about the protagonist as a young woman and the world around her. In this, el Moncef crafts a moment out of the past in a world slipping into fascism. It is a world tinged with the readers’ knowledge of what is to come, but with a bit of innocence, nevertheless. Mariam is young, and she sees the world through young eyes, coloring the narrative as much as the readers’ knowledge does.
The other fictional work in the book, “The Night Visitor,” crafts instead an unsettling air. Set in modern-day Brittany, it tells the story of a young woman whose life is disrupted by a guest at a gathering she has been invited to. It has a radically different atmosphere. Rather than the specificity of 1930s Benghazi, which is brought to life for all the readers’ senses, “The Night Visitor” is vague in the way the modern world can so often be. The descriptions are vivid, but they don’t always mean anything, which makes the sensory descriptions stand out all the more vividly.
The book finishes with two essays, both of which I had some trouble grasping. One referred to a book of el Moncef’s, which I had not read; the other was a deeply philosophical piece on the meaning of Le Pont des Arts. Both, like the introduction, will appeal to a very specific reader: one who is well-versed not only in Salah el Moncef’s works but also in high literature and philosophy in general. I fall into neither of those categories, so I often found myself lost amid the references and what felt like self-congratulatory intellectualism.
I gave this book five stars based on the parts I was able to grasp. I assume that, for those with the right background, the rating will extend to the parts that were beyond me.
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