In minute detail, Djebar recounts the ”three white days“ on which her friends were murdered and every moment leading up to their funerals. Boukhobza‘s mother upbraids his closest childhood friend for bringing him home to her, dead; Boucebci presciently tidies his papers and removes his wedding band shortly before he is stabbed to death; Djebar asks herself, beside Alloula’s open coffin, ”What is left for me?“
The procession rolls on, and takes with it many more, some of them also murdered, others killed in more banal fashions, by cancer or car wrecks. It includes luminaries like Albert Camus, who died in classic James Dean style, and the great Algerian novelist Kateb Yacine, who fell to leukemia 30 years later. It includes many who are less well-known, some of them dear to Djebar, like journalist Josie Fanon who in 1989 threw herself out a fifth-story window.
Though she protests that ”All I do in these pages is spend time with a few friends,“ Djebar‘s painful task is in fact far more ambitious. The challenge so much blood -- and death itself -- poses to the very possibility of speech and art is the problem of history itself. Surrounded by such horror and loss, she asks, ”How then can we get out of this mire -- in what language, in what aesthetic form of denunciation and anger -- how can we give an account of these changes?“ The fear is that language too will be pulled into ”the white of oblivion . . . the white of the shroud.“
Language, of course, is a far more complex and politically charged issue in Algeria than in places with less tortured pasts. There is the indigenous Berber tongue; there is classical, literary Arabic and its many spoken local dialects; and there is French, the language of the colonizers and of the intellectual elite, who, in 1995, when Djebar completed the French edition of Algerian White, were still being slaughtered for their speech. Djebar, faced ”for the moment“ with ”the Algeria of sorrow . . . of writing-in-blood,“ could only hope for exile and escape, not just in her Paris home, but ”in the safe harbor of writing in quest of a language beyond languages, by trying fiercely to obliterate all the furies of the collective self-devouring in oneself, finding ’the word inside‘ again that, alone, remains our fertile homeland.“ A better summation of literature’s daunting mission would be hard to come by.