Fundamental resistance

The Last Summer of Reason
Tahar Djaout
Ruminator Books, 145 pages, $19

Algerian White
Assia Djebar
Seven Stories Press, 256 pages, $24.95

Just as the U.S. government wages what it calls a war on terrorism, two newly translated works by Algerian writers explore the lives of the people on the other side of such conflicts. What these books show is that terrorism sows death and sadness wherever and whenever it exists, not just during isolated, mediagenic events. Whether driven by renegade groups or wearing the official guise of government, terrorism creates a dismal and oppressive condition for human beings to live under.

The Last Summer of Reason, a novel by Tahar Djaout, revolves on the painful axis of private and public life in a society ruled by religious fundamentalism. The fate of an introspective bookseller named Boualem Yekker turns on this axis as well. Yekker, who survived a grim childhood by relying on the escape and enlightenment provided by art, literature, and music, now finds himself living in a world where these things have been declared sacrilegious and subsequently banned. The force behind that declaration and the increasing repression and violence in Yekker's unnamed homeland is a religious group known as the Vigilant Brothers.

"Of what use are books when the Book exists to sate every curiosity and slake every thirst?" the Vigilant Brothers' ideology demands. For Yekker, a seller of books, that question is both ludicrous and frightening. If books can be banned and destroyed, what of booksellers? From the title alone, we can guess the answer.

Djaout interweaves accounts of Yekker's brave attempts to maintain his daily routine as he awaits the inevitable with a wrenching and lyrical exploration of the psychological causes and effects of religious fundamentalism. This is the important flip side of recent newspaper headlines and CNN commentaries. The book provides a courageous--and at times heartbreaking--glimpse into a world where fundamentalism has slipped from the margins into the mainstream. Yekker's two grown children have joined the ranks of the militantly faithful waging a campaign of terror in the name of a "God of vengeance and punishment." Children he recently invited into his store now throw stones at him. Yekker watches as the neighborhood of his childhood is overrun with religious militia and their secular cohort, the underworld criminals who "engage in punitive actions . . . against citizens they judge to be amoral, that is to say intellectuals, artists, and eccentrics."

As for what drives a person into the embrace of fanaticism, Djaout points to both poverty and provincialism, the same concerns that drove his protagonist to letters and music. In fervor, believers find escape: "They are paralyzed by the collective rapture that dispossesses them of themselves, makes them into fleshless shadows moved about by irresistible springs." The baffling world these "enlightened" ones create possesses all the illogical traits of Kafkaesque totalitarianism (including secret tribunals). In this environment, Yekker, heretofore peaceful, comes to regard such a thing as murder as "a symbolic and conciliatory act, a simple rite of exorcism whereby violence and blood come close to being purely abstract."

The phrase is horribly ironic where it pertains to Djaout; the author was a victim of that very abstraction. The Last Summer of Reason was found among the influential Algerian journalist's papers after he was assassinated in 1993 in Bainem, Algeria. He was the first of many writers, musicians, and artists to be killed in Algeria by groups claiming that the cultural elite and those in the media were enemies of Islam.

As translated from the French by Marjolijin de Jager, The Last Summer of Reason is a quietly stunning work. In richly textured, contemplative prose, Djaout builds an almost unbearable tension around his terrifically sympathetic protagonist. This brief novel is the affecting legacy of a man whose poetry prophesied, "Silence is death/ And you, if you speak, you die/ If you are silent you die/ So, speak and die."

Algeria is familiar with the injustices that led to Djaout's death. Located in strategically critical North Africa, the country and its people have been knocked around by various outside forces for 2,000 years. From medieval Arab invaders to French colonialists, the indigenous Berbers have had to contend with cultural and political oppression, civil war, and infighting.

The 20th century was particularly bloody, with a violent fight for independence in the late 1950s, a hard-line regime in the '60s and '70s, and the rise of a harsh brand of Islamic fundamentalism in the '80s and '90s. In her memoir, Algerian White, novelist and scholar Assia Djebar argues that more than 40 years of this violence has irrevocably altered not just the destinies of individual victims like Djaout, but the collective destiny of Algerian culture itself.

Djebar, who has lived in exile since the mid-1980s in France, Germany, and the United States, begins her book as a eulogy for three dead friends--a playwright, a sociologist, and a psychiatrist who dealt with mentally disturbed children. All were assassinated in 1993. But after just 30 pages, Djebar strays from her self-appointed task. Dipping into nostalgia, she works her way through a list of 19 Algerian writers and intellectuals, including Albert Camus and Djaout, who died between 1960 and 1994. Some were assassinated, others died in accidents, others of illness or suicide. By linking them, Djebar implies that they are all martyrs--martyrs for the cause of Algerian intellectualism: "[T]he writer has been offered as a proprietary victim: strange and despairing discovery!"

Djebar's argument for the martyrdom of Algerian literati is occasionally far-fetched--she lumps together writers whose deaths were innocent (Camus died in a car crash in 1960) with those targeted by violence. Still, in celebrating these quieted voices, Djebar leads the reader to appreciate the squelched intellectual capital of modern Algeria, with its tangle of cultures and languages--Berber, Arab, and French.

Unfortunately, the rambling, stream-of-consciousness style of Algerian White presents something of a tangle all its own. Although clearly a thoughtful, skilled writer (Djebar has won numerous international awards, most recently the 2000 International Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association), she needs an editor here. Sometimes she's so intent on cramming in every notable name and date that style goes out the window, taking clarity with it. At other times, her writing feels dreamy and disoriented as she revels in the slipperiness of memoir, arcing between the past, the present, and an imagined middle territory. Djebar's prose inclines toward the exclamatory--lots of exclamation points!--as if she or her translators do not trust the power of her language itself. (It's possible that Algerian White's shortcomings are a matter of translation, but the same Marjolijn de Jager who so beautifully rendered Djaout's words into English also worked on Djebar's book.) And then there is the complicated and fascinating history of her subject. The lay reader would do well to have an encyclopedia in one hand when Algerian White is in the other.

Knowing as many of her fellow prominent Algerians as she did, Djebar passes the grand test of memoir--she has a compelling story to tell, and hers is a voice the reader ought to hear, along with the voices of those she writes about. For today's readers, though, the most compelling story of all is the one told by Algerian White and The Last Summer of Reason together. Taken as a whole, the two books present a powerful indictment of the tyranny of any one group, religious or political, over a country and its people. It's a vital lesson for our time.

Lily Thayer writes for the Balitmore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected]
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