In this winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, a handsome young man nicknamed "The Italian" navigates an era of political and social upheaval in his native Tunisia during the 1980s and 1990s. Readers follow Abdel Nasser from his rebellious adolescence to his politically active college years to his career as a journalist and secret marriage to fellow activist, Zeina.
Mabkhout comes off as restrained in interviews. This benign demeanor is at odds with the raging passion and rebelliousness that infiltrate the pages of his phenomenal novel ... Readers will immediately grasp why his book threatened the status quo. Mabkhout has produced a stunning literary work about how it feels to live in a society that is not free ... it is impossible not to think that many of his finely drawn, haunting characters owe something to his experiences as an intellectual in a country whose government censors any material deemed not beneficial to the running of the state ... As I came towards the end of this tremendously provocative work, I kept thinking of Shukri Mabkhout’s decision to write this book. It took courage for him to have published The Italian. For surely he knew what he was trying to show us. And how dangerous it was to do so.
Shukri Mabkhout, in a first novel steeped in the Tunisian blend, dramatizes [Tunisia's] volatility and toxicity ... Despite this historical focus, the novel casts light on both future and past...dramatizing a sweeping change that doesn’t appear to make much difference ... It’s a young person’s novel, in other words, one in which the turmoil spills over into the bedroom—mostly outside matrimonial norms ... His narrative is also a portrait of a failed marriage, the collapse of its promise; it recalls the highly sexed domestic burnouts of John Updike, and more than that sketches an intimate correlation with the lie of a 'new Tunisia' ... The drama rises to a few great moments, such as a first kiss under police truncheons, a vivid emblem of the lovers’ quandary ... In the process, the novel exposes how the status of Tunisian women has the same tangled roots as its cuisine, owing something to both conservative Islam and capitalist Euro-America. Most importantly, The Italian doesn’t neglect the toll taken on men ... [some] material takes the story dangerously close to bildungsroman ... Still, if Mabkhout suffers a few missteps, by and large he shows us great moves.
... consequential ... this first novel by Tunisian university professor Mabkhout deftly illustrates how government repression and culture clashes have affected an entire generation of idealistic young people. In this accomplished translation, it can now be appreciated by a wider audience.