Tahar Djaout portrays a world of religious fanaticism, corruption, institutionalized suspicion and betrayal

Tahar Djaout portrays a world of religious fanaticism, corruption, institutionalized suspicion and betrayal

Mahfoudh Lemdjad has an obsession: making a loom like never before. For months he draws, calculates and works on his invention. As a boy, he was mesmerized by the movement of the long wooden beams that his grandmother set in motion when she went to work. Now he has given this enchanting activity a beautiful, contemporary form. He wants to apply for a patent at the town hall. But that just doesn’t happen. He is new in the Algerian village, he knows no one and no one knows him, he is a stranger, an outsider. He has to wait, he is sent from pillar to post. Does he want a passport for a conference in Heidelberg? Why then? Is he a foreign spy? Meanwhile, his every move is being observed by veterans of the Algerian struggle for independence, distrustful men who do not want to see their position and privileges derived from the time of bloody attacks jeopardized. An inventor is dangerous, he creates, innovates, challenges the existing order and is therefore suspect. “Our religion rejects creators,” he hears at the counter. The inventor saddles his new municipality with a major problem.

The great Algerian writer Tahar Djaout (1954-1993) draws us into his terrifyingly absurd universe. In The guards he sketches with a sharp and hilarious pen a world of religious fanaticism, corruption, institutionalized suspicion and betrayal, a suffocating world without a spark of freedom. His characters often grew up in poverty, suffered from hunger, and their happiest memory is that of a ewe giving birth. Their life is merely ‘a dependency of purgatory.’

We know the cynical absurdism in which Djaout excels in this novel from his contemporary compatriot Boualem Sansal, whose work also unmistakably exposes xenophobia, falsification of history, state police and the danger of military rulers. This is not without danger: Sansal has no freedom of movement, his books are banned, Djaout was shot dead by fundamentalists in 1993, as one of the first intellectuals. The ‘black decade’ began, years of terrorist attacks on intellectuals and other citizens, a civil war in which more than a hundred thousand people were killed.

Hunger and poverty

About fifty years earlier, it was Albert Camus who thought that the fight against misery, hunger and poverty was the greatest fight a human being had to fight, until he realized that there was an even fiercer fight: the fight against oppression and injustice, against fundamentalism and religious violence. What that meant for women was expressed by, for example, Assia Djebar (1936-2015) and Maïssa Bey (1950). All Algerian literature testifies to this, even to this day.

Writers and filmmakers also examine that other bloody period in Algerian history, the War of Independence that started in 1954 and eventually led to French recognition of an independent Algeria in 1962. With independence, a flow of migration started: everyone who had had to deal with the French army and could not or did not want to stay in Algeria left for France, with their families. Tens of thousands were housed in French transit camps, which sometimes existed for decades. Their children and grandchildren were born in France, were therefore French and started asking questions: what had happened, why did their (grand)parents remain silent? Writers search for answers like Alice Zeniter in her novel The art of losing (2018), in which she told the life story of her illiterate ancestors, farmers who emigrated from Algeria, over three generations. France is also still struggling with its colonial past, and art about this always leads to debate.

Recently another tragic family story appeared, A man without a title by Xavier Le Clerc (1979). He sketches the life of his father, Mohand-Saïd Aït-Taleb, born in 1937 in a village in northeastern Algeria, in a hut without running water or electricity. Le Clerc borrows the words of Albert Camus, who went to Kabylie, a region in northern Algeria, in 1939 to conduct research. He found poverty and hunger, mountain people forbidden by law from gathering pine nuts or gathering wood, a slave regime where men and thin women with ‘silhouettes like thorn bushes’ worked twelve hours for almost nothing.

Spiral of violence

Mohand-Saïd was trapped in a spiral of violence and exhaustion all his life: the Second World War, the war of independence and the departure to France determined his life and that of his wife and children. They end up not in France, not in Algeria, but in the only country that was familiar to them, ‘the land of violence’. After thirty years on the construction site, his father was fired, ‘with the indifference that normally strikes a pebble’. His father withdrew behind ‘a wall of unspeakable silence’ that he would never break.

His son, the author of the book, came out of the closet in 2001, which led to a definitive rift with his family: he had to keep quiet so as not to violate the family’s honor, was threatened and left, never to return. turn. He discovers the work of the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, whose attitude to life and erudition serve as an example to him; this was a man who was not called a ‘rotten Arab’. So it was possible! He then made a special decision: he changed his name. Hamid Aït-Taleb became Xavier Le Clerc. In no time he got a job at a prestigious office close to the Eiffel Tower. From now on he was an ‘expatriate talent’ instead of an immigrant.

Following in Kafka’s footsteps, Le Clerc writes a moving letter to his deceased father at the end of his book. He realized he had only one thing in common with him: the deep loneliness of the migrant.