Pillar of Salt (Statue De Sel)

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PILLAR OF SALT (Statue de sel)

Novel by Albert Memmi, 1953

The novel Statue de sel (Pillar of Salt ) by Albert Memmi is a veiled autobiography. It was published in French in 1953, when the author was 33 years old, and published in English translation two years later. The novel describes the evolution, through education, of the poor son of a worker. Based on the life of the author, it details the torment that accompanies every step of his social and personal change. The text relates the emergence of a poor, disenfranchised Jewish boy from the secluded dead end of the Tunis ghetto, where the only joy is the Sabbath dinner. Each step the child takes outside this protective world is marked by a double experience in which every instance of social or intellectual improvement exacts a personal price. In particular the boy must confront the guilt he feels in abandoning his family, who cannot understand what he is doing. At the sane time, however, the boy's classical education fails to provide him with an alternate "home" and serves only to clarify the abyss that separates him from the world. A Jew, he is separated from classical literature even if he understands it better than his classmates. His accent points to his lower-class origins, and because of it he is rejected by Christians and Jews alike. His education makes him see his parents' religion as a set of superstitions, and he thus abandons it, widening the gulf between himself and his father.

The boy is constantly reminded of his marginality, which he lives as an unfair draw. Even when he receives an award, he must follow the wishes of the donor and not his own inclination. His poverty makes him a misfit, always looking to an upper-class friend who will open a door, only to find that, even inside, he remains an outsider. From his first emotional encounter with a girl to his first visit to a prostitute, his experiences are marked by his position as an outcast who, unfamiliar with the ways of society, has had to find his own way by trial and error.

A large proportion of the book is devoted to the boy's intellectual and social evolution in the classroom, a microcosm of the outside world. The narrator—whose name, Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouch, is now revealed—shares the Arab experience of the colonized, suffers the Christian rejection of the African, swallows the snubs he endures from the bourgeois Jews and Gentiles alike, and internalizes his rejection by his father and his family. He faces the world alone, dispossessed of everything but his mind and his will to succeed. The only help he receives comes from some of his teachers, themselves misfits who perceive the human richness of their student and guide him in his final choice of the West over Africa, of language over dialect.

But the world intrudes. The war begins, Pétain breaks the promise of the French Republic, and Alexandre chooses to join his coreligionists in a work camp, where his status as part of the elite now places a barrier between him and the underprivileged. In the camp he learns again the value of religion as consolation and his own incapacity to help. He thus decides to escape, and the advance of the Allies offers him the possibility when the slave laborers are moved from the front lines. Having reached Tunis, he hides until the Americans deliver the city. He tries to join the French army of Charles de Gaulle but is rejected because he is Jewish, and in turn he rejects the West after this second betrayal. He studies to become a philosophy professor and, after suffering a new rejection from the French education ministry, decides to continue his life in a new world: Argentina.

Written with great tenderness and acute attention to detail, the text re-creates an entire society and does so without any obvious animosity or regret. The book is an exploration of identity, not only of a Jew in an oriental and Christian world but also of an underprivileged and outcast individual. As the narrator says, he is "indigenous in a country of colonization, a Jew in a antisemite universe, an African in a world where Europe triumphs." Constantly attempting to enter worlds where, ultimately, he perceives his status as an outsider ever more cruelly, the narrator succeeds only in severing himself from his roots. The dramas of North African Jews, of decolonization, and of Arab anti-Semitism are all captured in this beautiful and rich book.

—Alain Goldschlager