Illustration by Paige Imatani

The scope of Assia Djebar’s novel is as vast, and as claustrophobic, as its title suggests. It is at once a historical treatise, a novelistic memoir and a literary essay on the power of language as it serves to create self and culture. And it ends in poetry.

Djebar is a well-known literary figure in her native Algeria, a noted author and filmmaker who is now the director of the Center for French and Francophone Studies at Louisiana State University. Her prose, translated from the French, is as liquid and shimmery as a desert oasis; and with this art of illusion, she makes her reader thirst for an arrival, an achievement of meaning, a narrative destination — that never comes. But the incomplete journey is an evocation of the pain of colonization, and the unsatisfying nature of the road to self-awareness, where inevitably more questions are raised than answered.

Djebar’s book is divided into three parts, the first a conventionally built first-person narrative that tells the story of a 37-year-old married, middle-class Algerian woman who falls in love with a younger man. Very little happens here between the lovers beyond a mild flirtation; the narrative drama lies in the woman’s internal process, the epiphanic, if excruciating, experience of first love.

The romance Djebar describes is no more than a one-sided crush, a girlish fever undertaken late in life, and it’s a strange thing to witness — like a 40-year-old with a case of mumps or chickenpox. Her account of love’s minute tortures, at once fervid and incisive, makes one realize how murky most literary depictions of first love actually are. By the time a writer has acquired the eloquence to describe this phase of life, this sudden hormonal eclipse has long passed, dulled by memory, sanity and not a little self-conscious shame. Djebar, an adult when passion strikes, is a uniquely honest witness.

This love is complicated by the culture she lives in. Djebar writes, “I was keenly, consciously, happily aware of myself . . . as being truly ‘visible’ for this almost adolescent young man with the wounded gaze.” This is a woman feeling vivified by a man’s gaze, but in a culture where this gaze is never supposed to occur, where women are veiled and between themselves refer to husbands casually as “my enemy,” the way an American woman might say “my old man.” For Djebar’s narrator, being seen is not a passive act, but an assertion of presence in the world, and her internal dialogue is, as she writes it, a manifesto.

Djebar articulates these “adolescent” feelings of first love, and rebellion, in a way that perfectly synthesizes the personal and the political. The lateness and brilliance of this love stand for the staggered development of social faculties, worldliness and maturity all in a culture that restricts women so severely, and that is itself restricted by European subjugation. Her narrator observes how childlike her emotions for “the Beloved” really are, and attributes this latent burst of feeling to her having been deprived of male playmates when she was a girl. When the possibility of sexual intimacy arises, she chooses instead to start a game of Ping-Pong, channeling her sexual feelings into the innocent, athletic gestures of the game. For one who never experienced these childish things, this isn’t a regression; it’s a step forward into new and necessary territory.

This choice is what allows the narrator to eventually find her way out of her “prison,” as she leaves her husband and her country: She doesn’t form a real relationship with the Beloved, but revels in the narcissistic pleasures of love, the physical and emotional transports that literally lift her out of her complacent, provincial life into a more cosmopolitan — and at the same time more ordinary — life, where love and work are commonplace and episodic phenomena.

In Part 2 of So Vast the Prison, Djebar shifts gears, into a scholarly account of historical events surrounding an ancient stele covered in written texts, which turns out to be evidence of a lost written language from Libya, related to Berber. The mausoleum containing the stele was destroyed by the British in the 1850s, the stele cut in two and carried off to Europe.

This section of the book is strangely opaque. While at first this shift from the personal to the historical is intriguing, it eventually bogs down as Djebar piles on the historical figures, locations and exact dates — in a maddeningly nonlinear fashion. These events are clearly laden with significance for her as she intones them, but when the text is hard to follow, their impact dissipates — and so does her book.

In the third and final section, Djebar revives the narrative, but takes a more reflective tone. She uses a contrapuntal technique, alternating vivid stories from the narrator’s family background with more static, ruminative chapters dwelling on the narrator many years later — now given a name, Isma — directing a film in a mountain village.

The stories and fragments of stories that unfold, little bits of family lore interpreted by this daughter, have the wonderful quality of worry stones rubbed smooth to the touch by years of telling and retelling. They are anecdotal and sometimes apocryphal, as personally mythic as any family’s oral history: Her mother visiting her brother, Salim, in France, where he’s being held as a political prisoner. Her mother’s baby brother, who would die barely out of infancy, spontaneously warbling to his grandmother in what she swears was the ancient Berber language. Djebar’s first concrete memory, of waking up to find a French mother and son asleep in her parents’ bed (the simple literal explanation is that these people were neighbors frightened by air raids in the night, but the image serves as a foreshadowing of the narrator’s future, as it is lived and told in French instead of the forgotten Berber). The overlapping themes of writing and speech, of languages lost, forgotten, taken away and re-learned, accumulate through these effortless glances of memory.

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

LA Weekly