Silence is death

And you, if you speak, you die

If you are silent you die

So, speak and die

–Tahar Djaout

In her new book, Algerian White, Assia Djebar re-creates the 1993 murder of journalist, poet and novelist Tahar Djaout. ”What adolescent boy,“ she asks, ”completing his course of madness set free, killed Tahar? What young warrior went to the borders of Pakistan, trembled, prayed, then killed on behalf of his Afghan brothers . . . Who, what adolescent boys, scheming, numbed, hesitant, feverish and finally enraged, clutching their weapons, which ones pulled the trigger, didn’t pull the trigger, thought they were rendering justice when they first asked Tahar, in his car, ready to drive off: ‘Are you Tahar Djaout?’“

Djaout was shot twice in the head outside his home in Algiers, and died eight days later. The killing was attributed to members of the fundamentalist Armed Islamic Group, though the investigation was marred by so many irregularities that suspicion was cast on the government as well. The author of four novels, a journalist for one weekly newspaper, and the founder and director of another, Djaout was thus granted the unenviable distinction of becoming the first of 70 journalists to be killed in five years, a small fraction of the 120,000 Algerians who have since 1992 fallen victim to ”the hideous Gorgon of fratricidal war,“ as Djebar labels it. Regrettably, it is this last distinction that has won Djaout‘s name international renown. The building housing Algeria’s independent press center (which was bombed in 1996) bears his name, and it was his murder that sparked the creation of the International Parliament of Writers.

Among Djaout‘s papers was discovered the unedited draft of a novel, which was published in the U.S. this fall under the title The Last Summer of Reason. The only one of his novels (all written in French) to be translated into English, it presents a world that, were it not so terribly real, would feel like science fiction, with a literary debt, perhaps, to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid‘s Tale. The bearded and robed Vigilant Brothers rule the streets of an unnamed city in an unnamed land, brutally enforcing religious conformity, banning music, poetry: ”All mysterious things that join forces to make life more beautiful and more stimulating have ceased delivering their lifeblood and murmuring their secrets. The world has become aphasic, opaque and sullen; it is wearing mourning clothes.“

Boualem Yekker is the novel’s unglamorous protagonist, a humble bookseller who refuses to grow his beard and make a show of piety because ”His opinion of life was too high for him to make do with its shadow, its wrappings and its peelings.“ Abandoned and scorned by his family, Yekker lives only in his memories, and in his books. It is the latter that get him into trouble, because through them he contributes ”to the dissemination of revolt and beauty.“ In punishment, the world slowly closes in on him.

The Last Summer of Reason is at times frustrating — because it is tragically unfinished, because Djaout did not have the chance to polish and refine it, because the translation is often careless with the rhythms of English prose, because it provides such a slender glimpse of his otherwise unavailable body of work. It is nonetheless a gripping, chilling book, and now all the more so, not just as a fictionalized account of life in a radical Islamist state (though, importantly, that religion is never explicitly named, and the words Mohammed and Allah never once appear), but as a subtle psychological portrayal of fundamentalist impulses no less absent from our own society than from those we have lately singled out as ”evil.“ Djaout finds in this ”burning dream of purity and redemption“ a desperation for a ”life untroubled by any inappropriate question,“ behind which lies a hunger for self-annihilation, for ”the abyss of peace,“ a hunger that can find satisfaction only in a world from which doubt has been banished, ”in which questions are not asked.“ This last novel provides a fitful warning of the dangers of excessive orthodoxy, whatever its source, from a man who lived and died for the freedom to speak, question and create.

Djaout, sadly, is just one of the subjects of celebrated novelist (So Vast the Prison), playwright, filmmaker and poet Djebar‘s Algerian White, a lengthy eulogy inspired, she writes, by ”the desire to unroll a procession: that of the writers of Algeria, over at least one generation, caught at the approach of death — whether it be by accident, illness or, in the case of the most recent ones, by murder.“ She writes not simply to provide ”an account of death on the march in Algeria,“ but as part of ”an irresistible search for a new liturgy,“ to commemorate all this loss in some meaningful way, to find a language for so much death.

Algerian White is dedicated to, and devotes its first half to, three of Djebar’s close friends — psychiatrist Mahfoud Boucebci, sociologist M‘Hamed Boukhobza and playwright Abdelkader Alloula — all of whom were killed within three months of each other in the same wave of bloodshed that took Djaout. She writes about how they speak to her and she to them, about Algeria’s tragic history, about language, their shared memories and how to die. She speaks most of all of Alloula, whom she clearly loved, and of her anger at him for doing nothing, living his life as usual, after being warned of the planned attack a week before his death.

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.

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