But between these stories, Djebar returns again and again to dwell on the first-time filmmaker’s ruminative feelings about the images she’s capturing. These reflections, intended to be profound, read like an overearnest film student’s diary, comical in its naive grandiosity. Where the woman in love was tinglingly self-aware, the filmmaker is utterly credulous. In such a huge, disparate document, this strange lapse into solipsism, this lack of rigor, leaves the reader feeling stranded and tired.
In the end, Djebar has created a narrative structure that mirrors her subject, a work at once endless and confining: It’s the kind of book you want to stop reading in the middle, but finish in the hope of finding an ending, an exit, or at least a key. But there is none.
The last pages break down into poetry: "I do not call you mother, bitter Algeria,/That I write,/That I cry, voice, hand, eye./The eye that in the language of our women is a fountain."
The woman’s eye as a fountain — that is an almost impossible image to sustain. What exactly does she mean to suggest here, a gushing lens? Something that is intended to see but instead pours forth? As an image, it’s a non sequitur. In its last feverish strokes, So Vast the Prison does not culminate so much as fulminate and sputter out, drowning in the very language for which it thirsts.
SO VAST THE PRISON | By ASSIA DJEBAR | Seven Stories Press | 320 pages | $28 hardcover