In the last few months, I have read two recent books set in Algeria. One, The Barbary Figs, is a historical novel written by the Algerian-French writer Rashid Boudjedra (trans. André Naffis-Sahely) and the other, The Algerian Memoirs, was written by French-Algerian journalist Henri Alleg (trans. Gila Walker).
Both stand at a point in the recent past and look back over 50-plus years of Algerian and European history. Both circle around the question: What went wrong? Beyond that, they are very different books, both aesthetically and philosophically.
Henri Alleg, born Henri Salem, would not want to be summed up in either ethnic or nationalist terms, but one could nonetheless say that he is a British-French-Jewish redhead who found himself in Algeria, where he added on the identities of Algerian, writer, and Communist. I don’t think he’d mind a mention of his hair color, although I assume by now it’s faded.
Alleg’s straightforward, newspaper-style memoir opens in 1939, when he arrived in Algeria, on the eve of World War II: “Algiers at last!”
Although the events of Alleg’s tale are always compelling, he is rarely self-reflective. When he is, he gives few details. He says he regrets falling into the “Stalin cult of personality,” but we know neither how he came to this realization nor what it cost him. He also says little of a personal nature: His wife, Gilberte, is mentioned briefly, and then suddenly they are marrying because she is pregnant with his first son. We know few details about Alleg’s two sons: All I saw about the younger is that he enjoys a thorough read of a restaurant menu.
The fast-moving events are engaging throughout, but what is best about the book is its historical interest — Alleg’s account provides a fresh view of WWII as well as the French-Algerian conflict — and how it illuminates what it meant to be French when faced with “Algeria.” Alleg was certainly an exceptional Frenchman; his opposition to colonial rule and defense of free speech were certainly heroic. Nonetheless, he writes as a Frenchman. When writing of the post-independence era, he never seemed to understand the fierce backlash against Europeans, nor to criticize his own actions.
Boudjedra’s project is very different. It’s fiction, for one, although apparently based on characters from the author’s life. It’s harsh-toned, structurally complex, and fearless in a way that Alleg’s memoir is not. What Boudjedra’s project has that Alleg’s does not is an attitude of self-examination: The narrator tears at himself, and at his friends and family, in a search for the truth of Algeria.
While I would’ve liked to see this in Alleg’s book, I value having both narratives. I might even be interested in seeing an American’s new take on the Franco-Algerian war, in the hopes that it might be self-reflective and self-critical in a metaphoric way.
And what of Americans? It wasn’t long ago that Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie asked Anglophone writers in her essay “The Storytellers of Empire” why, “Your soldiers will come to our lands, but your novelists won’t.”
It’s true that most of the narratives we hear about Pakistan — and Afghanistan, and Iraq — are written by U.S. and U.K. journalists. It is far less often that Pakistani, Afghani, and Iraqi books break through the Anglophone hubble-bubble and reach a reading public. But Shamsie was not arguing for more translations of Urdu novels; instead, she wondered why there weren’t more thoughtful books from Anglo novelists about these places that are so vivid in the North American consciousness.
Of course, there are many Anglo novelists who have set their books in Africa, for instance, many without having set foot on the big continent. It’s doubtful that Shamsie wants any more novels like those described in Binyavanga Wainaina’s (satiric) “How To Write About Africa.”
However, fleeing the space entirely — throwing up our hands and saying, “It’s not our country, that’s that, we can’t be authentic here” — is also troubling. Although the invasion and occupation of Iraq has been a major event in contemporary US life, relatively few novels have touched on this space. When they do, they most often take the pose of Joshua Mohr’s Damascus, which addresses the returning US soldiers without acknowledging Iraqis, or Iraq.
One acclaimed novel about Iraq did come out last year, written by a former U.S. soldier, Kevin Powers. I haven’t yet read his The Yellow Birds, but I applaud its emergence and hope it is as self-reflective as its many fans say. But what about the rest of us, who have participated in the US occupation of Iraq as taxpayers, as cynics, as the hopeless, the nihilists, the inattentive, the tooth-grindingly concerned? Surely it is our war to write about, too.