cover image Pillar of Salt

Pillar of Salt

Albert Memmi. Beacon Press, $22 (352pp) ISBN 978-0-8070-8327-7

Alexandre Mordekhai Benillouche, Memmi's young hero and narrator, is a Jewish native of French-colonized Tunisia. His rich description of ``the almond bitterness of blackened calfskins'' in his father's tanning shop, among other things, betrays Memmi's nostalgia for his own childhood in a Tunis ghetto. By the eve of his bar mitzvah, however, Alexandre confesses to an acrid ``distance between myself and the tribe.'' Questioning the Judaism of his family and community, he finds it ``an incoherent mixture of Berber superstitions . . . and rites that could not satisfy the smallest spiritual need.'' An exceptional student, Alexandre forsakes tradition for an intellectual life. But unable to assimilate the ways of his wealthy, gentile classmates, he feels isolated at school. Memmi's ( The Colonizer and the Colonized ) long-out-of-print semiautobiographical novel powerfully distinguishes itself through its unblinking examination of the contradictions that thwart even Alexandre's most altruistic ambitions. After volunteering to work in a labor camp during WW II, Alexandre discovers that the class and ethnic distinctions haunting him continued within the camp. Ultimately, only exile and fiction writing--``mastering . . . life by recreating it''--can avert despair. Yet like Lot's wife, whose backward glance turned her into salt, Alexandre's existentialist self-revision only lands him in the prison of his own solitude. (Feb.)