It’s a warm August afternoon. A man has climbed up the metal tower clock in central Tunis. The tower clock was erected in the center of the city by the current president Ben Ali, after the preceding President Bourguiba had passed away, and his statue removed. Climbing up the clock is forbidden, and this man has defied the restriction, waving to the crowd that gathered beneath him. He is Saleh, known as The Gorilla. A black man, an orphan, who grew up in the countryside and worked as a guardian of the deceased President Bourguiba’s tomb. People he’s had ties with recognize him, staring up the clock or on their television screens. Even the vicious police officer Ali Kilab (Ali The Dogs) recognizes him and sees in his presence up on the metal tower a great opportunity to take him down, take him in and eventually kill him. During the hours of The Gorilla’s holding on to the tower clock, despite the electric chocks Ali Kilab sends him through the metal frame of the tower, the city is in ebullition. Something big is coming, a wave of discontent fed with fear and misery.
The novel’s timeframe is set between The Gorilla reaching the top of the tower, and the dramatic fall, followed by the calcination of his body — a clear allusion to the historical event that started the Tunisian uprising in December 2010. During this time, a patchwork of characters and stories is rhythmically woven chapter after chapter, until all the pieces fall into place, and an almost complete landscape unfolds before the readers’ eyes.
The novel has a weblike structure. It holds in its center the main character at the top of the tower clock, where it all starts and ends. From that central and emblematic figure, each chapter goes in a different direction in time and in space, following the story of one of the multiple characters that all take part in the final revolutionary scene. The Gorilla, as many of the other characters, was involved in an aborted coup.
Al Riahi succeeds in creating a captivating atmosphere, partly violent, partly ludicrous with hints of strangeness that give it all a dreamlike feel. He depicts with great wit and a beautifully colorful and modern language a drifting Tunisian society. There is something extremely human and likable about The Gorilla. And his terrible death, although expected and ineluctable, resounds with a deep sadness.