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The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun

July 8, 2018 9 comments

The Poor Man’s Son by Mouloud Feraoun (1954) Original French title: Le fils du pauvre.

Mouloud Feraoun was born in 1913 in Tizi Hibel in Kabylia, Algeria. He became a schoolmaster in Algeria and was assassinated on March 15th, 1962, a week before the war of independence ended. He wrote the Poor Man’s Son in 1954, during the dark moments of the war. This novella is largely autobiographical, the main character’s name, Fouroulou Menrad is almost an anagram of Mouloud Feraoun.

The book opens with a preamble: Menrad is a schoolteacher in a small village in Kabylia and he wrote his personal story in a notebook. The first par of the novella is a first-person narrative with Fouroulou telling about his childhood. He recreates his small village, describes the genealogy of his family, their way of life. Like a gifted storyteller, he makes us hear and see life in this remote part of Algeria. He describes the streets and the houses, the family clan and its living together, the bickering and jaleousy between his mother and his aunt.

As the only son, he was cherished by his parents and was always put first. His sisters didn’t have the same position in the family; he had better food and better care.

Comme j’étais le premier garçon né viable dans ma famille, ma grand-mère décida péremptoirement de m’appeler Fouroulou (de effer, cacher) Ce qui signifie que personne au monde ne pourra me voir, jusqu’au jour où je franchirai moi-même, sur mes deux pieds, le seuil de notre maison.

Since I was the first viable boy born in my family, my grand-mother peremptorily decided to call me Fouroulou (from effer, to hide) This means that nobody in the whole world could see me until I’d cross the threshold of our house myself, on my own two feet.

That’s how important he was to his family.

Feraoun depicts a place where everybody was dirt poor and always on the verge of being poorer. Any accident or illness preventing the adults to work could lead to starving. Any event affecting the crops could lead to not having enough food to put on the table. All of the adults’ energy is spent on staying afloat and feed the family. If needed, men went to France to work for a while and send fresh money back home. Feraoun weaves a wonderful homage to his aunts as he loved spending time in their house. They were artisans, creating potteries and baskets with artful drawings. He remembers their craft and their affection.

With little touches, little anecdotes and memories, the scenery appears in our eyes mind. We see the dusty streets and the unbearable summer heat. We hear children laughing and running through the village, playing together. We see the family. We imagine Fouroulou in the fields, destined to be a shepherd. Anecdotes about fights, tricks and illnesses let us see the local traditions. The presence of the French State is only palpable in some areas like the police (the villagers did their best not to involve the French police in their quarrels) and of course, the school system.

That’s when things start to change for Fouroulou. When he goes to school. It’s a sacrifice for the family: they need to buy him supplies and clothes and while he’s in school, he’s not working. This is common in poor communities, school isn’t seen as as vital as working. And Feraoun wonders:

Les pères de famille qui passent leur temps à essayer de satisfaire les petits ventres peuvent-ils s’occuper également des petites cervelles ?

Are family men who spend their time trying to satisfy little bellies able to also take care of little brains?

As you can guess from Feraoun’s biography, going to school will be a turning point in his literary doppelgänger’s life. Fouroulou’s school teacher in the village made him participate to a competition to win a scholarship to go to collège (junior high). This was common practice in the French school system of the beginning of the 20th century. Schoolteachers were on a mission to detect bright pupils and help them go further. It was also a way to have candidates to enter the Ecole Normale, the state network of schools that trained future schoolteachers. That’s what Menrad and Feraoun did. (It still existed in the 1970s) For the second part of the book, we switch from Fouroulou’s voice to that of an omniscient narrator. This part relates Fouroulou’s years in college and his years after graduation.

There’s no real plot in The Poor Man’s Son. It’s mostly an homage from a grown man to his origins. If I had to compare him to other writers, I’d say he’s like Pagnol with La gloire de mon père or Ramuz or Giono. He recalls his childhood with tenderness and emotion but doesn’t sugarcoat the poverty.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

February 25, 2018 25 comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud (2013) Original French title: Meursault, contre-enquête.

Preamble: I downloaded a sample of the English translation on my kindle. All the translations of this post are by John Cullen who translated The Meursault Investigation into English.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is a story based on The Stranger by Albert Camus, told from the side of the victim’s family. The narrator is the victim’s younger brother and Daoud’s novel relates both the murder seen from the Arabs’ side and the consequences of this event on the younger brother’s life.

From the first sentence, the reader knows that The Meursault Investigation is constructed as a mirror to The Stranger. Indeed, it opens with Aujourd’hui, M’ma est toujours vivante. (Mama’s still alive today), a counterpart to Camus’s Aujourd’hui Maman est morte. (Maman died today) In a sense, the book is like a negative in photography.

In the first pages, the narrator mulls over the fact that the Arab killed in L’Etranger has no name. His first mission is to give him his name back, he says he was named Moussa. Our narrator is in a café, drinking wine and telling his story to a stranger. French is the language because this story needed to be told with the language of the colonizer. The pace of the story is in short chapters and often they end with a direct address to the reader, as if he were in the café, listening a storyteller. It’s like Scheherazade leaving cliffhangers to have her audience back the next day. You don’t see it in English, but in French, it’s said with the “tu” form and not “vous”. For me, it’s also a way to remind us that the narrator doesn’t use his native language for this story, that his native language is Arabic were the “vous” form isn’t used in spoken language.

Daoud never mentions Camus in his novel but he’s everywhere. He’s paraphrased in chapters, a mirroring text to the original, a text in reverse, the same way Arabic is written from right to left when French is written from left to right.

As I said, Camus is never mentioned directly and L’Etranger is a first-person narrative. This allows a confusion between the writer and the character, something that is very clear in this paragraph:

Comme tous les autres, tu as dû lire cette histoire telle que l’a racontée l’homme qui l’a écrite. Il écrit si bien que ses mots paraissent comme des pierres taillées par l’exactitude même. C’était quelqu’un de très sévère avec les nuances, ton héros, il les obligeait presque à être des mathématiques. D’infinis calculs à base de pierres et de minéraux. As-tu vu sa façon d’écrire ? Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! Son monde est propre, ciselé par la clarté matinale, précis, net, tracé à coup d’arômes et d’horizons. La seule ombre est celle des « Arabes », objets flous et incongrus, venus « d’autrefois », comme des fantômes et avec, pour toute langue, un son de flûte. Je me dis qu’il devait en avoir marre de tourner en rond dans un pays qui ne voulait de lui ni mort ni vivant. Le meurtre qu’il a commis semble celui d’un amant déçu par une terre qu’il ne peut posséder. Comme il a dû souffrir, le pauvre ! Etre l’enfant d’un lieu qui ne vous a pas donné naissance. I’m sure you’re like everyone else, you’ve read the tale as told by the man who wrote it. He writes so well that his words are like precious stones, jewels cut with the utmost precision. A man very strict about shades of meaning, you hero was; he practically required them to be mathematical. Endless calculations, based on gems and minerals. Have you seen the way he writes? He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! His world is clean, clear, exact, honed by morning sunlight, enhanced with fragrances and horizons. The only shadow is cast by “the Arabs,” blurred, incongruous objects left over from “days gone by”, like ghost, with no language except the sound of a flute. I tell myself he must have been fed up with wandering around in circles in a country that wanted nothing to do with him, whether dead or alive. The murder he committed seems like the act of a disappointed lover unable to possess the land he loves. How he must have suffered, poor man! The be the child of a place that never gave you birth…

Where does the assimilation between Camus and Meursault begin and end? The man who wrote it can be both Camus writing a novel and Meursault writing his journal. They were both born in Algeria. L’Etranger was written in 1942, before the War of Independence but I imagine that the tensions between the French colonizer and the locals were already palpable. Camus and Meursault were strangers to the land they were born to.

Let’s stop a bit and contemplate this paragraph.

Daoud perfectly nailed Camus’s style. That’s how I felt when I reread L’Etranger. I was dazzled by his words, his perfect way to describe the landscape and the Mediterranean light. Short sentences chiseled with precision. I have a reservation about the translation. When I read the French and the passage about Camus’s style, Daoud only uses the word pierre, not pierre précieuse. And John Cullen translated it with precious stone, and then jewels which takes the Anglophone reader to another path than the one I took. Perhaps Daoud told him that was his intention. That’s not the way I see it. When I read Daoud, I see carved stones, not gem stones. I see the rectilinear lines of buildings at the sea front in Algiers. I see light stones from a quarry, shaped into perfect geometrical stones to build buildings, to set up the inevitable ending of L’Etranger. I don’t see Camus as a jeweler, I see Camus as an architect and a builder.

Daoud also writes Il semble utiliser l’art du poème pour parler d’un coup de feu ! and not Il parle d’un coup de feu et on dirait de la poésie ! which would be He’s writing about a gunshot, and he makes it sound like poetry! In French, the use of art du poème is not natural and I wonder if it’s a way to show that the narrator is not a native French speaker and that he comes from a literary tradition where poetry holds a major place.

The end of the paragraph refers to the awkward place of French colonizers in Algeria. Some came to Algeria from Alsace and Lorraine after the 1870 debacle and the annexing of these regions to Germany. Part of the French living in Algeria were born there; they were not only people sent in Algeria for a few years as a military, a civil servant or an expat for a company. From an individual point of view, it was their country, in the sense of the place you were born. But of course, it was not their land because their presence was based on a conquest that took thirty years and they were living on stolen land, on a lie. Daoud’s words explain that for Algeria, Meursault was a stranger. For the French community, he was an outsider. This is why it’s difficult to clearly choose between the two titles used in English for L’Etranger, which covers both meanings in French.

I won’t tell more about the plot and how far the mirroring goes because it would spoil your reading. Suffice to say that it shows a narrator living in poverty and probably saved by the school system. (Like Camus and in the background, like Meursault) It shows Algeria after the independence, after the terrible decade of the 1990s and how a man who doesn’t comply to religious duties and drinks alcohol can feel as an outsider in his own country. The narrator might have something in common with Meursault after all.

The Meursault Investigation assumes that Camus never named the Arab who was killed because as an Arab, he was a non-entity. I don’t agree with this. I’m sure that a lot of scholars more qualified than me have written essays about it. As a common reader, when I closed L’Etranger recently, I thought this was a universal story and that the Algerian setting was incidental. Maybe Camus missed his place of birth in 1942, in the middle of the horrible WWII. To me, L’Etranger is closer to a Greek tragedy, something set up from the start, a literary machinery that corralled the character into the path designed by a writer who wanted to point out the absurdity of life, the narrowmindedness of his society and show his vision of life through a novel. I don’t read anything into the Algiers setting, sorry.

I think The Meursault Investigation is a brilliant book that left me puzzled. Its construction is skillfully done, Daoud knows Camus’s work inside out. There are obviouns references to L’Etranger but to other works by Camus like Caligula or The Myth of Sisyphus. I don’t fully agree with his interpretation of L’Etranger but Daoud wrote a compelling story and also used Camus’ novel as a stepladder to criticize his own country. I really recommend (re)reading L’Etranger before diving into The Meursault Investigation. It’s only 120 pages long and it will enhance your reading of Daoud’s novel.

Other reviews:

 

Dead Man’s Share by Yasmina Khadra.

June 7, 2015 17 comments

La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra 2004. English title: Dead Man’s Share translated by Aubrey Botsford

Disclaimer: I had to translate the quotes myself and I found it rather difficult. So be nice to my clumsy efforts.

En Algérie, les portes du salut sont aussi imprévisibles que les trappes du non-retour. Question de baraka. Ou vous l’avez ou vous ne l’aurez jamais. In Algeria, the doors to redemption are as unpredictable as the no-return doors. Question of luck. Either you have it or you don’t.

I read La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra a couple of months ago and I have to say I don’t remember much about the plot. But to be honest, the plot is not the most important thing in this book, which is odd for a crime fiction novel. Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul. It is made of his wife’s two first names. He was an officer in the Algerian army during the civil war in the 1990s and he had to hide his identity as a writer because of censorship. His wife supported him and signed all the publishing contracts in her name, on his behalf. Read more about his life, here in French and here in English.  I’m afraid it’s a lot more detailed in French than in English.

Khadra_mortWe’re in Algeria, on the verge of the civil war of the 1990s. Llob is a superintendant at Alger’s police department. Professor Allouche, an old acquaintance who manages a psychiatric ward asks him to come and visit him. He’s worried because one of his patients has been reprieved by an official commission and he’s free to go. Professor Allouche thinks a dangerous murderer is about to get lose on the Alger streets. He asks Llob to intervene to prevent a crime. At the same moment, Llob is concerned about one of his men, Lino. He’s been seen all over Alger on the arm of an unsavory woman, former girlfriend of an apparatchik. Lino is totally infatuated with her and spends too much money to cater her every whim. She’s close to several Algerian statesmen and this puts Lino in a dangerous position. Llob will have to do something about it.

The plot is interesting to follow but the book is fascinating for its picture of Algeria. It dissects the workings of the Algerian State. It shows the corruption, the inability to build a democracy after the independence. The picture is not pretty. The house seems rotten to the core. Former FLN fighters took the power and confiscated it. Their aura as independence heroes makes them untouchable. You don’t criticize a war hero. Khadra digs back to the year 1962 and the massacres of Harkis, the Algerians who were pro-French during the war. When the French left the country in 1962, most of the Harkis were left behind.

The country’s new found independence is built on blood. The war was ugly and its immediate aftermath just as much. The novel is full of thoughts about violence, its link with human nature. Khadra tries to understand its raw power.

On tue pour ne pas chercher à comprendre. C’est l’aboutissement d’un échec, l’émargement d’un désaveu. Le meurtre est l’inaptitude de l’assassin au raisonnement, l’instant où l’homme recouvre ses réflexes de bête fauve, où il cesse d’être une entité pensante. Le loup tue par instinct. L’homme tue par vocation. Il se donnerait toutes les motivations possibles qu’il ne justifierait pas son geste. One kills to avoid looking for explanations. Killing is the ultimate failure, the signing of a retraction. Assassination is the murderer’s inability to think, the moment a man resorts to his wild beast’s reflexes and ceases to be a thinking entity. Wolves kill by instinct. Men kill by vocation. Mankind could find themselves all the reasons they’d want, nothing can justify their killing.

There’s a lot of soul searching by Llob. He was a member of the FLN army too. His job puts him in contact with political power and with the small people. He sees the former fighters take advantage of their position in the country and get rich on the back of the country they fought for. He deplores that illiterate and undereducated men are in a position to exercise power. He sees the people on the streets struggle to have a decent life. Khadra brings Alger’s streets to life, like here:

C’est un gamin d’une douzaine d’années, maigre comme ses chances. Il porte un pantalon fripé, un tricot pourri et une bonne partie de la misère nationale sur les épaules. Les garçons comme lui sont légion. It’s a twelve years old boy, as slim as his chances. He’s wearing creased trousers, a rotten jumper and a good dose of the national misery on his shoulders. Boys like him are legion.

Llob is an interesting policeman with a fulfilling private life. That’s a change, as far as crime fiction is concerned. He’s been married to Mina for years, they have children and a peaceful family life. Llob is also an opportunity for Khadra to reflect on the place of women in the Algerian society.

Je me suis souvent demandé ce qu’il serait advenu de moi si Mina ne m’avait pas épousé. Elle est plus que ma femme, elle est ma belle étoile à moi. Rien que de la sentir près de moi me remplit d’une incroyable assurance. C’est fou comme je l’aime mais, dans un pays où l’interdit dispute au harem les palpitations de notre âme, il serait encore plus fou de le lui déclarer. I’ve often wondered what would have become of me had Mina not married me. She’s more than my wife, she’s my own lucky star. Just to feel her beside me fills me with an incredible dose of assurance. I’m crazy about her but in a country where social constraint and the image of harem fight against each other for the fluttering of our souls, it would be even crazier to make her that declaration.

Kind of sad, seen from my side of the Mediterranean.

I’m not sure Khadra is a real crime fiction writer. I think the genre allows him to voice his thoughts about Algeria at the time. It’s really well done and it’s a healthy read for French people. It’s an opportunity for us to read about the war in Algeria from the other side. It was an ugly war, one that left terrible scars on both sides and too much remains untold. Ironically, Khadra writes in French, the language of colonization is the one he chose to express his talent. I don’t know if his speaking Arabic brings something to his use of the French language but I loved his style. I have many quotes like this one:

Lorsque Bliss vous accueille sous le parvis du paradis, comprenez que l’enfer a déménagé. When Bliss welcomes you under the porch of paradise, you know that hell has moved in.

It’s even better in English when you throw the meaning of bliss in the middle of it.

I bought La part du mort by Yasmina Khadra at Quais du Polar thinking it was the first in the Llob series when it’s not. I was mistaken because it’s written on the back of the book, so please Folio, correct this for the next edition.

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