Ulysses among the Fundamentalists (3)

Traditional house door in Tigditt quarter of Mostaganem where Habib Tengour grew up.

And here, the final installment of Habib Tengour’s short fiction extracted from Gens de Mosta:

In the afternoon, after they had finished reading the report on morality, he discreetly left the conference to walk down to the beach. He knew well that the congress was important — a historic moment! — that his presence meant a lot; he was not only there as a symbol. “How to get out of this, given the context?” Smaïn had asked him brandishing the invitation. Yet Smaïn was less engaged than he was. This was the first public demonstration after years of clandestinity. He had put up with and supported this party through many difficult moments. And now he could no longer put up with their speeches. Wind! In private discussions he admitted that his attitude may shock certain of his friends; it was however of no consequence as far as the political situation was concerned. You couldn’t hope for anything from anybody. He had never thought that he was indispensable and felt certain that on this count he was right. So much needed to be done in so many domains and there were so few means. So little time, too. You had to grab the maximum of the latter in order to live. He scoffed at his own lamentations, felt them to be fake too. What was all this? A masked ball! How to penetrate souls? Answer the questions?  Deliver oneself. Be at peace. Impressions of his adolescent readings of Tolstoy swam to the surface. The shepherds use a lash to drive the flocks to pasture. The world remained an indecipherable enigma and yet in bowshot distance. How to realize such a displacement? Remember:
For in the past I was young man and young girl
And bush and bird and mute fish of the sea.
Today all exits are blocked.
On the promenade he made mental notes in order to make the brilliance of the day manifest and fix it in his memory more securely than by writing: “Superb weather!” “What a drought” “Summer persists, o ochre season, Happiness.” Tranquility, a cristalline space.” Gull time.” “Aquatic fervor, sweat.” “Alone, a siren…” “The sea sings” “The long legs satin-sheened in the black marvel of the stockings and love on the run sets fire to the austere dwellings of the tribe” “For long, the obscure blemish” “The line is pure when I bend over” “An ancient desire bursts forth… On the Cape, Ulysses wept. Ithaca evil. Each day sitting in the same spot as if immortality had no price. During the month of June, the scents of cedar and thuja are stifling. The crows and gulls were screaming above his head; their idiotic whirlings amplified his misery. The soul stirs, then founders in a raw light refracts the memories. Stomach contractions followed by burns. The body winds up numb. In the cave the soft, algae-scented shadow permeated the atmosphere with gloom. Calypso couldn’t understand a mortal’s melancholy and the companions were dead. Ulysses was alone on this comfortable island where nothing happened that hadn’t already been deliberated by the assembly of the gods…” He exalted himself. The images grabbed him. Inspiration.
“What am I trying to do?” he asked himself, embarrassed. And exclaimed: “No need for that! Artifice dulls the soul.”
He took his shoes off. Go downstairs careful not to step on the shards of glass. He went and leaned back in the shadow of the parapet’s small wall, facing the sea. To stay like that, for a long moment, eyes half-closed, settled in a vacuity he cherished. There was a slight swaying motion of the waves that faded away into the pause. Forget Achilles! … Nobody was going to come here to disturb him. This idea filled him with joy. He felt good. He breathed in deeply, delighting in the rush of air that excited his body from the inside.
The daydream’s whims or the mischievous flight of the gulls made him regret the absence of Nausicaa and her companions. The ingenuous grace of their silhouettes naked for the bath. “It’s not that long ago that they were there, playing ball, singing hymns to love,” he thought sadly. The young girls remained cloistered according to the pseudo-modernist interpretation of the Law. The island was given over to dyed-in-the-wool masturbators, skilled in the art of marking the cards. The masters of the game. The pimps of the hour. The pretenders! The suitors! Good-bye to the shawl and the shimmering tunic and the golden flask filled with sun oil and the playful escort of nymphs, they would invite you to bathe in the current.
… He rose to his feet. He undressed. Earlier, when he had arrived, he had noticed the twisted sign at the edge of the road:
He weighed down his clothes with a piece of perpend  he found there. He breathed deeply. Then he rushed for the sea while beating his chest and letting out Tarzan’s war cry.
…That’s how the whole Suiza gang dove into water…
Come to where he didn’t have foot any longer, he turned around and swam on his back while examining the shore. The water was pleasant. Warm for the season. He dove, trying to stay below the water for as long as possible. He had been a diving champion once, but cigarettes had taken their toll. He came up coughing. He floated on his back to rest. Then he began to imitate the dolphin’s swimming style. Suddenly, he reared up. He pulled off his trunks and threw them across the waves. He burst out laughing — a long, loud laughter that made him swallow water — remembering how, way back, when they pulled their trunks off in the middle of the sea and put them on their heads better to complete the passage from the Fantom Rock to the Salamander, Zerrouki the Short was worried that the fish would nibble on his little whistle.


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