L’Amour, la fantasia, Albin Michel, 1995
Fantasia, An Algerian Cavalcade, Quartet Books
“Africa's 'best books' revealed”, 28 February, 2002, BBC World, On-line edition
A panel of 16 African scholars and critics has announced its definitive list of Africa's finest books of the 20th Century.
The initiative, which was sponsored by the Zimbabwe International Book Fair, narrowed down 1,500 nominations to a list of the best 12 books.
The judges' top 12
“A love-hate Affair”, Ivan Hill, The Times Literary Supplement, n° 4541
It is a platitude among Algerians of a certain age that the relationship between France and Algeria was a love story. Assia Djebar plays on this from a variety of angles in Fantasia. Fundamentally, there is the question of language. Endearments in her mother tongue or Arabic are full and erotic, but not to be used outside the family except in illicit missives. The curlicues of the script are sensual. French is the language for thought, but its blandishments are devoid of passion. The angular writing is cold. Yet she has chosen to weave together incidents from her childhood and the French invasions of her country in the less intimate language.
In Fantasia, she treats historical reports by French soldiers, sailors, and observers such as Eugène de Fromentin as being rather like love letters. Alongside them, she places testimonies of women whose homes were burnt in the War of Independence because they were reported to be harbouring freedom fighters. The memories of growing up in an Arab-Berber village while attending a French-style school, and the continuing cultural confusion, are used as counterpoints to these eyewitness accounts. Djebar also speculates about the unspoken suggestion that women in rebel villages were raped, and not always without complicity. The result is a complex fabric which is organized in three sections. Each is structured like a musical composition, returning to the same themes and varying them.
It is a passionate search for identity but also a cultural and historical exploration of thought and literacy. The style is highly elaborate, and this translation successfully conveys the richness of Djebar’s linguistic spree.
(This book is the first of a quartet; the second, A Sister to Scheherazade, an examination of the subjugation of women in contemporary Algeria, was the first to be published in English. However, since the links between the volumes are tangential, the order of reading them does not matter at all.)
David Kelley, “Assia Djebar: Parallels and Paradoxes”, World Literature Today, 1996:
“As I begin to write this essay, I am attempting to decipher a handwritten text by Assia Djebar and am having difficulty. The text is entitled “La violence de l’autobiographie,” and the difficulty of reading this text – on the most primitive level of the handwriting – seems to me to go to the root of some of the more fundamental problems she is addressing in her work. Having handwriting which is hard to decipher reminds me of the frustrated remark of a poet friend: “You can always tell a writer – never got a pen.”
For what Djebar is speaking of is perhaps one of the most difficult questions the writer has to deal with: that of the delicate balance between self-revelation and the discreet hiding of the self behind a veil. In the text I am referring to, written after a colloquium in which her work had been discussed, she puts this very specifically into the context of the contract – or noncontract – between the writer and reader, saying, on the one hand, that once the piece of writing has left her hands for the publisher, she refuses to reread it, except for extracts read in public, and, on the other, attending the viva of the first doctoral student to write on her.
Writing is both private and public. It always encompasses what is most secret and visceral in the psyche of the individual, what the individual wants to get off his or her chest. Part of the difficulty, however, is the fact that it is not easy to discover one’s own “story,” and the discovery of it through writing must be made to relate somehow to the experience of others. This becomes even more complicated if the language in which that journey of discovery of self is operated is not only the language of others – since language, as we are reminded by, for example, Beckett, is always the language of others as well as our own – but more specifically the language of what is perceived as the Other.
First, perhaps in this sense, the language of the male. Djebar is often thought of as a woman writer, and of course she is both a woman and a writer, although she writes neither girls’ books nor stridently feminist books. There is, [before L’amour, la fantasia but only appearing in the 3rd tome, Vaste est la prison] a very moving passage in which she describes visiting the baths and hearing a woman saying the “enemy” is there and she cannot stay to talk. Subsequently, she learns that “the enemy” is the term currently used for the man in the household, the husband. […]
Elsewhere, in Le Blanc de l’Algérie, Djebar notes the difficulty of speaking to her male friends in Arabic, taking recourse to a French which is somehow more neutral, barer, because foreign to both parties than the dialects of the mother tongue.
Yet the language in which Djebar writes is in other sense the language of the Enemy, of the Other. It is the language of the violator of her country. […] So, Djebar’s response to writing, and more particularly to the language in which she writes, to her potential reader, is a complex and perhaps paradoxical one.”
« Explorations/Excavations of History: Knowledge, liberation and the quest of the writer in Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia and Vaste est la prison » Debra Kelly, University of Westminster, La Chouette, 2000.
La repossession de l’identité ne peut passer que par l’Histoire. Il faut rétablir la dialectique passé-présent. Assia Djebar, « Une femme, un film, un autre regard », Demain l’Afrique, n°1, septembre 1977.
The novels, theoretical work and films of Assia Djebar have brought her to deserved prominence as a writer and intellectual not only in the field of Francophone Literature, but more widely in the debates concerning oppression, liberation, and, particularly, the place of women in the postcolonial world. Here I will focus on two volumes of her “Algerian Quartet”: L’amour, la fantasia (1985; reprinted in 1995; Translated as Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade), which has received much critical attention mainly focussing on the re-writing of the history of the colonisation of Algeria undertaken by Djebar in the text, and Vaste est la prison (1995; translated as So Vast the Prison).
In this study of these two texts I will take up the theme of “exploration” in the sense of the exploration of history undertaken by Assia Djebar in order to facilitate a new relationship with the past. The exploration of history becomes bound up with the quest of the writer for the creation of a new place in the world for the postcolonial subject. The question of the liberation of the individual and the collective, and the strategies the writer uses to achieve that liberation, are bound up with the types of knowledge (about history, about language, and cultural and individual identity), and of self-knowledge, that are necessarily at work in the development of a discourse of identity in the colonial and postcolonial contexts.
In L’Amour, la fantasia she describes the power and the danger of the very act of writing in French:
Ecrire la langue adverse, ce n’est plus inscrire sous son nez ce marmonnement qui monologue; écrire par cet alphabet devient poser son coude bien loin devant soi, par-derrière le remblai – or, dans ce retournement, l’écriture fait ressac.
Langue installée dans l’opacité d’hier, dépouille prise à celui avec lequel ne s’échangeait aucune parole d’amour… Le verbe français qui hier était clamé, ne l’était trop souvent qu’en prétoire par des juges et des condamnés. Mots de revendication, de procédure, de violence, voici la source orale de ce français des colonisés.
Sur les plages désertées du présent, amené par tout cessez-le-feu inévitable, mon écrit cherche encore son lieu d’échange et de fontaines, son commerce.
Cette langue était autrefois sarcophage des miens ; je la porte aujourd’hui comme un messager transporterait le pli fermé ordonnant sa condamnation au silence, au cachot. Me mettre à nu dans cette langue me fait entretenir un danger permanent de déflagration. De l’exercice de l’autobiographie dans la langue de l’adversaire d’hier… (L’amour, la fantasia, p. 241)
The (Re) Possession of Knowledge: the relationship to history
… L’histoire est utilisée dans ce roman comme quête d’identité […] J’aborde le passé du dix-neuvième siècle par une recherche sur l’écriture en langue française. S’établit alors pour moi un rapport avec l’histoire du dix-neuvième siècle écrite par des officiers français, et un récit oral des Algériennes traditionnelles d’aujourd’hui. Deux passés s’alternent donc. (Interview with Mildred Mortimer, Research in African Literature, 1988)
The (re) possession of historical knowledge is the first and most clear of the writer’s quests in the pursuit of the types of knowledge she seeks in the establishment of this politics and poetics of identity. It is also the first writing strategy in the development of this poetics, and the one to have received most critical attention – the re-reading and re-writing of historical discourses, what I have termed here the re-possession of knowledge, the knowledge that allows the relationship of the collective and of the individual to history to be re-defined. The most obvious of Djebar’s writing strategies is the recuperation of a lost history of Algeria and especially of the women of Algeria literally from between the lines of official history (here Pélissier’s account of the suffocation of the tribes and their animals in the caves of the Dahra mountain region):
Pélissier, l’intercesseur de cette mort longue, pour cinq mille cent cadavres sous
El Kantara, avec leurs troupeaux bêlant indéfiniment au trépas, me tend son rapport et je reçois ce palimpseste pour y inscrire à mon tour la passion calcinée des ancêtres. (L’amour, la fantasia, p. 93)
She also sheds light on the often ignored sufferings of women, those caught in the « fumigations » of tribes in the Dahra caves, the anonymous women whose hands and feet were severed for their jewels, the story of the Bride of Mazouna, and almost at the end of the book, she adds the voice of the Frenchwoman Pauline Rolland, deported to Algeria in 1852 for taking part in the 1848 revolution. This is a key moment in the text, and a key moment for the type of knowledge that Assia Djebar’s writing promotes, for it is knowledge that not only empowers through the new relationship to history, certainly to disrupt monolithic images, but also to promote connections between cultures, especially female cultures, rather than using alternative histories as markers of difference. Pauline Rolland becomes a point of cultural connection. As one critic writes:
In the letters she wrote to friends in France, Pauline Rolland speaks of her contact with Algerian women, as she shares their condition of imprisonment, homeless wandering and menial labour. Djebar comes to see Pauline Rolland as a true ancestor of the women of Algeria whose stories she herself has been telling. By expanding the French documentary resources to include the words of this sister in oppression, Djebar has found a gap in the hegemonic perspective which opens the possibility of real communication. (Mary Jean Green, “Dismantling the Colonizing Text: Anne Hébert’s Kamouraska and Assia Djebar’s L’Amour, la fantasia” French Review, May 1993)
Yet this reconciliation in the French language is temporary in the ambivalent relationship to it that Djebar experiences, and the liberation glimpsed here is not yet fully achieved. The quest of the writer for a resolution of the many conflicts that besiege her identity is multiple and complex.
Strategies for Self-Knowledge: the history of the self
La langue encore coagulée des Autres m’a enveloppée, dès l’enfance, en tunique de Nessus, don d’amour de mon père, chaque matin, me tenait par la main sur le chemin de l’école. Fillette arabe, dans un village du Sahel algérien. (L’amour, la fantasia, p. 250-251)
In considering the re-writing of historical discourses, it is already clear that part of the writing strategy in L’Amour, la fantasia is the production of a metaphorical discourse of great complexity and variety. The palimpsest-like structure which is elaborated through the re-reading and re-writing of the French male accounts of the colonisation of Algeria is in itself one large, all-encompassing metaphor. The act of writing itself in the image of the severed hand is another metaphor for the past history of Algeria and for the occultation of women from that history. It is equally a metaphor for the literally physical danger the narrator runs in bringing to light this history. Indeed the metaphor of the act of writing is so all-pervasive throughout the text in a myriad of forms, both as explicit statement and as implicit imagery, it is impossible often to separate the metaphor from the text, form and content are inextricably bound together. The body of Algeria itself is present, at once as a physical, geographical body, as the body of the collective Algerian women, and of the body of the narrator herself engaged in the act of writing and all subject to actual or potential violence. In addition to the use made of metaphor, Assia Djebar employs myth through the technique of re-using well-known myths and mythical figures as part of the textual structure (what Ernstpeter Ruhe has suggestively called the “mythomorphoses” of Assia Djebar).
See in Germany Critical Review: Ernstpeter Ruhe, “Les mots, l’amour, la mort: les mythomorphoses d’Assia Djebar’, A. Hornung & E. Ruhe (eds) Postcolonialisme & Autobiographie, Amsterdam-Atlanta GA: Rodopi, 1998, p. 161-177.
For internet version visit: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/lachouette/chou31/Kelly31.pdf
« The Specific Plurality of Assia Djebar », Jane Hiddleston, French Studies 58 2004, p. 371- 384
Recent postcolonial criticism suffers from a sense of anxiety regarding the appropriate balance between cultural specificity and post-identitarian hybridity or ‘creolisation’. Thinkers differ in their understanding of the importance of identity, at times advocating that the affirmation of a particular subject position is the only means of resisting (neo)colonial domination, and at others asserting that a celebration of relationality and cultural plurality can serve to critique entrenched power relations. Conceptions of postcolonial resistance waver between the urge to privilege an alternative, monologic identity on the one hand, and liberation through the dissolution of all specified identity categories on the other. […] I want to use the texts of Assia Djebar, with reference also to the theories of Jean-Luc Nancy and Peter Hallward, to rework the terms of this debate. Rather than championing exclusively either cultural specificity or trans-culturation, Djebar’s work incorporates a continued struggle between the specific, the singular and the plural.
First, Djebar’s texts set out to unveil or conceive a feminine Algerian identity, rescuing Algerian women from occlusion both by colonialism and by Islamic law and giving voice to their repressed specificity. Despite her belief in the necessity of this project, however, she finds that it is troubled on two levels. On the one hand, the desire to retrieve some particular essence results in the continual retreat of that essence, and the more the texts hope to uncover, the more they inadvertently mask or hide.
Algerian identity is replaced, therefore, with a sense of the intractable singularity of the occluded ‘self’. Furthermore, this singularity turns out to be not absolute but composite, as the erasure of the subject is coupled with a proliferation of diverse traces and echoes. The quest for identity intermittently dissolves, and Djebar displays postcolonial experience in Algeria instead as a curious coalescence of intractable singularity and ongoing intercultural plurality.
In L’Amour, la fantasia, the conflict between the specific and the singular-plural is demonstrated by the text’s complex relationship with the genre of autobiography.
Autobiography, as both a singular and a collective project, turns out for Djebar to be an unsatisfied quest, a ‘preparation’ rather than a completed work. As Celia Britton has argued, a number of recent postcolonial critics have associated autobiographies by silenced female writers with a process of « coming to voice ». Yet, just as Britton argues that Daniel Maximin’s text refuses to posit a consistent subjectivity or voice, I want to stress that Djebar, too, never harnesses the plural contingent of voices that appear in her work together to form a cohesive sense of self. Instead the text presents layers of possible selves, all of which remain partially opaque and irrevocably fragmented by the language in which they are constructed. The text attempts to position both the author herself, and, more broadly, female Algerian identity, but the narrative used to accomplish this process also succeeds in fracturing and dissolving its referents, leaving instead a series of contingent echoes with no whole. The French language of agency seems to confer an excess of clarity that ends in annihilation and betrayal. Autobiography becomes a sort of dissection, cutting open the singular being with the hope of revealing and defining her substance while destroying her in the same process. For Djebar, « tenter l’autobiographie par les seuls mots de français, c’est, sous le lent scalpel de l’autopsie à vif, montrer plus que sa peau. Sa chair se desquame, semble-t-il, en lambeaux du parler d’enfance qui ne s’écrit plus. » […]
Djebar also reflects that « me mettre à nu dans cette langue me fait entretenir un danger permanent de déflagration », reinforcing this tension between revelation and dissemination. Autobiography turns out to be as much about insufficiency and fragmentation as about identification. Selfhood is singular-plural, in Nancy’s sense, rather than specified and delineated by narrative. (p. 380-381)