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The Pillar of Salt by Albert Memmi

The Pillar of Salt - Albert Memmi

This is a well-written novel about the life of a Jewish Tunisian boy, growing up in the years leading up to WW2. It is generally considered to be autobiographical, and though the narrator’s name is not the author’s, it reads more like a memoir than a novel: it records Alexandre’s memories and thoughts about his life, but has few if any traditional scenes and very little dialogue or physical description; the detail is primarily emotional. And yet, the specific incidents that make up the narrator’s experiences feel drawn from life, rather than the types of occurrences an author is likely to invent.


The first section of the novel is about Alexandre’s childhood, and it begins in almost idyllic fashion, though it gains complexity as he becomes aware of his family’s poverty and the divisions in his society. The second and longest section follows him through high school, torn between the traditional lifestyle of his family (who come to resent allowing him to study at all, since it means not bringing in money) and the European middle class. This part of the book reminded me of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in its examination of social class, through the lens of an impoverished student trying to succeed in an almost foreign world. The final section is about WW2 and the German occupation, and while this is by no means a thriller, it introduces some suspense and is a different sort of war story than I’d read before.


At any rate, I enjoyed this book: it is well-written (or well-translated), and the narrator is complex and feels genuine. While there’s no single plot, the story kept my interest, and formed a great introduction to the complexities of a place I knew next to nothing about. The supporting characters receive less development, and there are more of them than we could get to know well – again, in memoir-like fashion – but in a story focused on the narrator’s search for identity, it works. I would recommend this one.