Vaste est la prison, Albin Michel, 1995
Critical reviews from UK & US
Alan Cheuse’s Review of So Vast the Prison by Assia Djebar
All Things Considered, NPR, aired December 8, 1999
Picture the woman: You’ve seen her in photographs and in films, head and face completely covered, you see only her eyes behind the veil. She is, as Assia Djebar calls her, the arable woman; a woman who lives a life watered by sorrow and tears, a woman shut away from mainstream society and locked into a constant struggle with the enemy, as women refer to their husbands when they talk among themselves.
In this eccentric, moody, lyrical novel about Algerian life, present and past, the narrator relates her own struggle for freedom while growing up female. She studies her grandmother’s life and her mother’s. She studies the lives of antique Berber women, her ancestors. She marries. She falls in love. Has a bittersweet affair.
At last, she finds liberation as a filmmaker and writer realizing the quest, as she puts it, « to recapture the deep song strangled in the throat of my people. » Finding it again with images, with the murmur beneath the images.
From time to time, we hear about books that supposedly tear away the veil from the lives of Arab women. I don’t known anyone who has done this with more intelligence and passion and done it from the inside of this heavily shrouded culture than Assia Djebar. That murmur beneath her images soon begins to sound like a roar.
“Across the borders” Christopher Prendergast, TLS December 1996
In the early nineteenth century (that is, at exactly the time when literature was being theoretically and practically modelled as essentially national literature), Goethe spoke of the dream of « a common world literature transcending national limits ». […] It was an important and a generous idea, reaching out across divided peoples and cultures (often divided by war and, more frequently, by sheer ignorance) towards commonalities and shared experiences. […]
What Goethe imagined here was a kind of grand cosmopolitan gathering of the literatures of the world to engage in what an influential commentator on Goethe called « an international conversation ».
In our times, the ideal of Weltliteratur has become more authentically global, as a consequence of pressures of colonial and postcolonial history, the great movements of emigration and diaspora, the contraction of the « world » brought about by transport and communication.
The cross-cultural collage remains, however, very much the literary order of the day, and has found institutional recognition in the prestigious Neustadt Prize for contributions to World Literature. Assia Djebar is its latest recipient
Djebar is in many ways a natural for this kind of recognition. A modern Algerian writer, with roots in Berber society, who writes in French, she lives in and a cross multiple cultures and histories. She is a teller of many stories and, even within the drama of the same book, of many different kinds of story, ranging heterogeneously, though always coherently, over complex worlds of memory and desire. For someone writing in French in the late 20th century, it takes a degree of literary courage to begin a novel, as she does her latest, Vaste est la prison, with the word « Longtemps » (to my knowledge, no one since Proust has done so, precisely because of Proust and the weight of the opening word of A la Recherche du temps perdu). But Djebar’s « prison » is not the claustrophobic prison of La Prisonnière with its narrator trapped in a memory-laden and desire-frustrating nightmare. It is the very different nightmare of the violent history of Algeria. Her questions are: what happens to memory and desire in that nightmare, and what the obligations of the writer, in particular the writer of narratives, to them might be.
… Djebar mistrusts narratives that lock you in the prison-house of fixed representations. Her stories disintegrate, often very smoothly, into multiple plot-lines, fluid compounds of personal and collective history which reach across what divides and arrests, dispersing rigid oppositions although never forgetting the realities of conflict and confrontation.
The oppositions include Algeria/France, Rome/Carthage, Islam/Latinity and, crucially for an North African writer, French/Arabic (and Berber).
Djebar’s novels scramble the rigid logic of these antitheses, not as literature of protest but as a search for some room for manœuvre beyond the grand narratives.
A long flashback takes us to Carthage. Djebar’s retelling of the story of Carthage figures as its true hero Polybrius, the Greek historian come from Rome as the exile-witness who records the destruction of the city. He ends his life recording the destruction by the Romans of his native Corinth, his writing itself surviving for us in bits and pieces.
Polybius is aligned with a retelling of Cervantes’s story of Zoraida, an Arab woman incarcerated by her father, who, by means of a secret message, escapes with a captive Spanish soldier to Spain.
For Djebar’s own situation as a writer, this act of boundary-crossing involves the question of the French language. There is a good deal of reflection in her books on what it means for an Algerian woman to write in French, as both a condition of exile and an escape route. French writing contrasts with an indigenous Arabic and Berber oral culture, which is generally associated with female forms of solidarity (a whole section of the novel deals with Berber songs collected by the narrator’s mother). On the other hand, this is a woman commemorating the oral in writing, and specifically in written French. If French is exile, however, it is also gain, and in her stories it typically (though not always) comes to daughter from father, complicating the scenario beyond a simple notion of Islamic-patriarchal entrapment of woman; male/female, maternal/paternal are posed as categories in the swirl of history, language and culture, and are not reducible to the polemical pieties of certain brands of ‘post-colonial studies’ ».
“Arrow of Silence” Jonathan Levi, Los Angeles Times, December 1999
Back and forth, down to one layer and then up again, Isma’s mind floats around the theme of colonization, from the Roman consul Scipio’s destruction of Carthage through the war of independence to Algeria’s most recent internecine barbarities. Yet, as she leaves her family for « exile » in France, colonization takes on fresh meaning for Isma. Not just the subjugation of one nationality by another, one religious group by another, colonization also covers the abduction and subordination of women by men, whether those men be husbands, fathers, sons, or lovers.
Although the arrow of the novel seems to point to a feminist core, « So Vast the Prison » is so much more. Djebar’s book is tinted with a language that owes much to the Andalousian ancestors, to the colonial ambitions of Arabs from the east and the French from the north and the frenzied wailings of Berber women mourning their own:
Meqqwer Ihebs iy inyar
Ans’ara el ferreg felli !
Cries a cousin from the mountains: « So vast the prison crushing me, Release, where will you come from? »
Release, of course, comes through language, all the languages that have come from and to this desert country, from the Punic language and culture that the Roman Senate thought to have buried forever with its famous vow « Carthago delenda est » to the language of observation, the language of the cinema that Isma adopts after she leaves her husband and becomes a film director. Observing instead of being observed, trading the narrow slit above the veil for the secret vantage point of the viewfinder.
So Vast the Prison by Assia Djebar
Translated by Betsy Wing, Seven Stories Press www.sevenstories.com
Publisher’s Weekly, A Review
Writing becomes a weapon and refuge for the oppressed in this fiercely intelligent, intricate novel set in a tragic, bewitching Algeria. Expressing the bitterness of being caught between traditional Islamic and modern European cultures, married 36-year-old Isma begins her story the summer she has an affair with a student. A highly educated musicologist, Isma is also governed by Islamic tradition. When her husband discovers her dalliance, he beats her, intending to blind her. The affair marks Isma’s awakening and the beginning of her quest for true Independence, though she stays with her husband a little while longer. When she finally leaves him, she embarks on a semi-documentary project, to be called Arable Woman. Intertwining her experiences in the mountains filming peasant women with memories filming peasant women with memories of her childhood and stories about her female ancestors and relatives, Isma weaves a complicated tapestry of images and sentiments. The tales she unearths are richly detailed and gracefully told, and the book becomes a moving common history of cultural exile and captivity.
Djebar, winner of the 1996 Neustadt Prize for Contributions to World Literature, has a talent for narrating the stories of those who are « freed and voiceless » without heavy-handed moralizing or judgment.
“Discovering Liberation in French”, Leslie Camhi, The New York Times, March, 2000
“So Vast the Prison”… recounts a modern Algerian woman’s observation of her disintegrating marriage; the history of archaeological searches for the lost alphabet of the Berber tribes ; and the carefully reconstructed life stories of the writer’s mother and grandmother.
For Ms. Djebar, the middle section, in which the ancient Greek historian Polybe appears as a character, holds particular importance.
« Polybe had seen his own country destroyed, and then was brought as a Roman captive to Carthage to describe its destruction, » she explained, « And when that was over, the Romans told him, you’re free, you can go home. But then he finally arrived at his native city he witnessed the famous sack of Corinth. He was over 70 years old. »
In « So Vast the Prison, » Ms. Djebar writes: « All that he has is a language whose beauty warms him and that he uses to enlighten the enemies of yesterday who are now his allies. He writes. And his language, he his hand, his memory and all his powers just before they fade, contribute to this untimely, yet necessary, transmission. »
« When I think of Polybe » Ms. Djebar later reflected, « I ask myself, what are the conflicts of Algeria today in relation to these past centuries of destruction? And somehow I feel calmer. »
Claire Messud « Fight or flight » The Village Voice, December, 1999
For almost a decade, Algeria has been a nation in tumult, where intellectuals and liberals have been assassinated by fundamentalist terrorist squads, and entire villages massacred. This is not Algeria’s first undeclared war. The country was colonized by the French in 1830, and their war of Independence, from 1954 to 1962, was also prolonged and brutal. […]
Written in stages – in 1988, 1991, and 1994 – the book begins as an exploration of women’s desire and comes, progressively, albeit resistantly, to incorporate a sense of the terror that has, in recent years, stalked all Algerians. Toward the end, after describing the peaceful death, during a prayer, of the narrator’s uncle, Djebar intercedes: “They are the men I want to write about – not the victims, not the murdered ones! Because behind each of the latter there are ten murderers, and I see, oh yes, I can make out the cascades of blood behind the one man, the one woman, assassinated today. I cannot. I do not want to. I want to run away. I want to erase myself. Erase my writing.”
This struggle between the need for language and the desire for oblivious silence pervades the book, whose narrator Isma is, like Djebar, a writer and filmmaker. […]
This novel is written in four parts, each strongly distinct. The first section, lyrical and interior, describes Isma’s initial, shameful flight from her first marriage, in the ‘70s, after falling in love with a younger man whom she refers to as ‘The Beloved.’ Many years later, she recollects her growing obsession, Isma and the Beloved do not have an affair in any traditional sense, but in Algers, even long before the current troubles, the very fact of their conversations is illicit. Eventually, Isma confesses to her husband, who beats her: “I see… again, the face women, even in a harmonious marriage or one, in any case, with no apparent conflict, secretly call any husband ‘the enemy.’ Women speaking among women.”
The language spoken by women among women is secret. Here, again, emerge the opposing impulses in Isma and her creator: to speak that language aloud and yet to keep it clandestine, that it might retain its force. The idea of a secret language is explored, too, through another facet of Djebar’s heritage: her identity as a Berber. […]
The novel’s third section alternates between chapters describing Isma’s filmmaking project (she is working on a semidocumentary film entitled Arable Woman) and chapters unfurl the dramas of Isma’s family history, and in particular those of its women. In spite of the intellectual sophistication of the novel as a whole, these later chapters are the book’s beating heart. […]
The novel’s abbreviated fourth and final section is pure lament for the fallen. The book’s abiding image is of “Yasmina in the ditch,” a young Franco-Algerian woman who returned to Algeria in 1994 with a Polish woman friend. When the latter was abducted by terrorists disguised as policemen, Yasmina gave her life in return for her friend’s freedom.
So Vast the Prison is a book written over time, […]
Ultimately the first section sits uneasily alongside the rest, as if its very lyricism were an indulgence that rigorous acts of retrieval – the work of the rest of the novel – can ill afford. While it is not at first obvious why Djebar chose to include this first section, it acts almost as a wistful, but corrective, breath of nostalgia : as if to say there was a moment, not so long ago, when an Algerian writer had the luxury of lavishing such prose upon a mere love affair. A luxury that most novelists – in the West, at least – take for granted. Algeria’s current moment is considerably more stark; but so, too, as the novel makes clear, have been many in its history, from Jugurtha’s time onward. Through all these times, and even in the darkest hour, there has flourished a hidden language, a living language: a language that, in spite of her conflicting impulses, Assia Djebar will speak aloud.
The New York Times Book Review, February 13, 2000
« Redeemed by Language » by Erik Burns
Djebar breaks up Isma’s story with detours into Algerian history, in particular the story of Tin Hinan, « the fugitive princesse, who made her way into the very heart of the desert of deserts » and ends with a lament for modern Algeria, a land of « dark, incomprehensible deaths. » Her novel, ably translated from the French by Betsy Wing, deliberately confuses time and character to stress the timelessness of its themes, notably the hardships faced by women, the oppressions of colonialism and the redemptive power of language and writing. Djebar’s prose can occasionally seem overwrought, but her often elliptical style effectively transmits the potent feeling of dislocation at the heart of Isma’s story.
In These Times
« Algerian unveiled » by Heather McCabe
Isma divorces her husband and tries to start a new life. But the journey that Djebar weaves is no ordinary one. Isma’s self-discovery is constructed from a series of imaginative detours that take her back to the destruction of Carthage and a stele containing a double inscription – half in Phoenician, half in an ancient Libyan, a language that survives in the oral forms of modern Berber. Isma’s narration also dips into the 16th century, when the character Zoraidé appears in Don Quixote as the « entrance of the Algerian woman into the first great novel of modern times. »
Through her grandmother’s and mother’s childhoods, Isma recalls her own past. A personal story emerges that encompasses layers of history, culture, and language. Isma, like Djebar, is an Algerian with Berber roots, educated in French schools and a witness to independence and the end of French colonization. Farther back, Isma’s mother descends from Muslims who were chased from Andalousia by the Spanish during Cervantes’ day. Like the stele tells a story through language, Isma’s mother has kept with her copies of Andalousian music that she wrote down in Arabic as a child. One day during the Algerian war, French soldiers break into the family’s apartment, discover these books written in an indecipherable hand and destroy them, lest they are part of a nationalist plot. The Andalusian couplets that have traveled down generations of women are shredded in an indifferent blender of history.
Although the personal anecdotes taken from Isma’s family’s life and history have a common political theme, the tone is never moralizing or righteous. Like Isma when she is filming peasant women in the mountains, Djebar’s gaze on the life of her protagonist and the people surrounding her is modest yet penetrating, intimate and personal. Djebar asks just what her countrywomen want, knowing that we might answer, « freedom. » But this answer is too simplistic, too general and, Djebar knows, unattainable. « Oh, no », she replies, « Freedom is far too vast a word ! Let us be more modest, desiring only to breathe in air that is free. »
“The lament of a woman imprisoned by her culture” Philip Herter
St. Petersburg Times, January 2000
Algerian author Assia Djebar’s novel So Vast the Prison recalls those legendary dishes served at desert banquets: a roast dromedary stuffed with a sheep, which has been stuffed with peacocks in turn packed with turtle eggs, each delight concealing another within.
The novel’s protagonist is an Algerian woman, an intellectual, a wife and a mother, hypersensitive to the culture and history in which her problems are embedded. Her society, post-colonial Algeria, is a harsh one, drenched in the blood of civil war and jihad – a dangerous place for an educated married woman to fall in love with a younger man.
Unveiling the mind of singular woman using collective gender memory as an unraveling thread, So Vast the Prison is an intensely personal book that seeks no less than to reclaim history for all Algerian women. The exploration makes for a wondrous feast of a novel.
« Assia Djebar’s Algerian Quartet : A Study in Fragmented Autobiography » Mildred Mortimer in Research in African Literature, Vol. 28, Number 2, 2000.
Lien : www.iupjournals.org/ral/ral28-2.html
The sentiment of exclusion led Djebar to her "Quatuor algérien," a writing project to reestablish links with the maternal world from which she felt distanced--but in fact a realm she never lost--when she first grasped her father's hand to walk with him to school. To date, three of the four projected volumes of the Algerian quartet have appeared: L'amour, la fantasia (1985), Ombre sultane (1987), and Vaste est la prison (1995). All three are polyphonic texts that combine personal and collective memory. The first and third juxtapose autobiographical fragments with Algerian history; the second replaces history with myth, recalling the legendary Sheherazade. By delving into her individual and collective past, Djebar adds her own voice to those of her maternal ancestors, both historical and legendary. »
« Cadastre de l’imaginaire dans Le Quatuor » Clarisse Zimra, Nomade entre les murs, 2005
Ce que nous offre celle qui disait, « j’aurais voulu être architecte », c’est à la fois l’objet bien concret que nous tenons entre les mains, et cet espace où un imaginaire se déploie, procès et processus, tissu-tissé de multiples réseaux. A Yale, Djebar reprit son désir maintes fois exprimé de faire imprimer son Quatuor en couleurs et typographies différentes pour mieux l’édifier ; ce qui, dit-elle, permettrait d’en souligner les éléments constitutifs bien plus physiquement qu’un texte linéaire, simple ligne droite, noire sur blanc qui irait tout naturellement, tout téléologiquement au but et à sa vérité. Et d’insister combien, d’un texte à l’autre, ils se complètent et se répondent. Gertrude Stein n’utilisait-elle pas des encres et des papiers de couleurs variées dans ce but ? Le même souhait avait déjà été exprimé par Faulkner dans les années 50. Vieille ambition que de vouloir souligner l’aspect concret, matériel de l’oeuvre pour mieux bouleverser les principes de sa structure; un désir qui, en art moderne, finira tout logiquement en « livre-objet ». Butor ne fera pas autrement dans les années 60.
La narratrice ostensible (qui se nomme « Elle ») prend la décision du retour, mouvement vers l’amont, certes, mais inachevé ou, du moins, qu’elle espère achever hors-champ, en aval du livre. Accompagnée de sa petite fille, elle dessine une trajectoire familière mais inverse de celle qui ouvrait le premier volet du Quatuor ; cette scène bien connue où L’amour, la fantasia nous offrait une autre petite fille, main dans la main du père, pour sa sortie « hors harem ». La trajectoire ainsi déclenchée va bondir par dessus la conquête de 1830, puis finalement rebondir jusqu’au sursaut de l’acte de rébellion conjugale de 1960, celui du deuxième volet (Ombre sultane).
Ombre sultane présente alors la double paire de la gémellité symbolique originelle, Isma-Hajila/Shéhérazade-Dinarzade, pour en prolonger l’audace bien au-delà d’une brutale rupture conjugale. Ames doubles, âmes-sœurs, elles répètent le défi de la « mariée nue » du premier volet (L’amour, la fantasia), toutes filles et aïeules à la fois les unes des autres. Car toutes ne font que glorieusement prolonger l’ombre portée originelle, celle de Tin-Hinan ; toutes ne font qu’effectuer une plongée spectrale vers l’amont des origines qui les propulse vers l’aval d’une nation à naître . C’est alors que, dans cette structure d’un entrelacement d’avant-arrière si raffiné, premier et deuxième volet du Quatuor s’emboîtent pour mieux se retourner vers leur ancêtre à venir, ce volet paru en troisième position mais qui, dans le temps du récit et l’espace de sa mythologie, les englobe et les précédait: Vaste est la prison.
Si Ombre sultane est contenu, on l’a dit, dans L’amour, la fantasia, L’amour, la fantasia est, à son tour, emboîté dans Vaste est la prison. Elaborant – ou plutôt, échafaudant – un texte second à partir du premier, l’architecte du mémoriel se livre à un travail d’anamnèse selon le jeu de récits superposés qui (se) répondent les uns à l’intérieur des autres et, toujours, vice-versa. […]
Cette réversibilité structurelle est, à mon avis, la stratégie la plus fondamentale du corpus djebarien, ce qui lui permet de ne pas étouffer, ne pas « effacer » la présence de l’autre: de celui ou celle qui lit, face à celle qui écrit. Partie intégrante de mon projet de recherches, il y aurait à explorer ici, (mais le temps manque), une Djebar, lectrice de sa propre écriture, face à une Djebar écrivain de sa propre lecture, – situation éthique quasi-kantienne – pour qui structurer un tel mémoriel c’est entrer en dialogue avec soi, d’abord ; avec tout lecteur disponible et lui/elle-même pluriel, ensuite. […].
C’est ainsi qu’il faut comprendre cette obsession de la langue, métaphore de l’écriture et support physique à la fois, ces voix / voies qui enclenchent une série fulgurante, depuis les ensevelies de la sauvage guerre de 1830, jusqu’à l’aphasie maternelle, évocation – avec son étymologie pleinement vocale – de l’amnésie nationale, orchestrée par le régime arabisant qui tente d’effacer le berbère des collines. Sanguinolents, les sanglots reviennent dans ces caillots qui ponctuent la fin de Vaste est la prison.
Susannah RODRÍGUEZ DRISSI, The Quest for Body and Voice in Assia Djebar's So Vast the Prison, http://clcwebjournal.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb05-3/rodriguezdrissi05.html, Purdue University Press
I explore the concept of the hero, that is, more appropriately put, the concept of the heroine in the work of Algerian-French novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar. In my opinion, Djebar's work is not only significant for the Algerian, French-language, and Arabic-language literatures but also for world literature and women's writing in general. …
In the past, studies concerning the hero, such as James Frazer's The Golden Bough, Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Otto Rank's The Myth of the Birth of the Hero, or Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, to name just a few, have been dedicated to the study of male protagonists. In Campbell's study, for example, he describes the woman as part of mother nature or as symbolic of mother nature itself, as cosmic goddess or evil goddess, but never as a central figure. As a result, the woman in such studies has been relegated to a secondary role, becoming a facilitator of the journey and its recompense, not its main subject. In The Female Hero in American and British Literature, Carol Pearson and Katherine Pope contend that "our understanding of the basic spiritual and psychological archetype of human life has been limited. The hero is almost always assumed to be white, as well as upper class. The journey of the upper class white male, a socially, politically and economically powerful subgroup of the human race, is identified as the generic type for the normal human condition; and other members of society -- racial minorities, the poor, and women -- are seen as secondary characters important only as aids or rewards in his journey" (4).
… In addition, the motif of the journey, which, as we mentioned earlier, is related typically to the quest of the hero, seems to be always present in her narrative, specifically in the novel in question. In the beginning of So Vast the Prison (Vaste est la prison, trans. Betsy Wing), the narrator confesses:
"Writing about the past, my feet wrapped up in a prayer rug which was not even a jute or horsehair mat tossed down somewhere on the dust of a dawn road or at the foot of a crumbling dune under the immense sky at sunset. The silence of writing, the desert wind turning its inexorable millstone, while my hand races and the father's language (the language now, moreover, transformed into a father tongue) slowly but surely undoes the wrapping cloths from a dead love; and so many voices spatter into a lingering vertiginous mourning, way behind me the faint murmur of ancestors, the ululations of lament from veiled shadows floating along the horizon -- while my hand races on" (So Vast the Prison 11-12).
According to Juan Eduardo Cirlot, heroes are always travelers, owing to their constant unconformity and desire to bring about change (Dictionary 25). If we consider that a journey is more than a displacement through a physical space and that it also constitutes a desire or quest for change; or, as in this case, a journey to the past or a journey through the landscape of language -- as the earlier passage reveals -- then Djebar's So Vast the Prison may belong categorically to the genre of the quest novel (on this, see also Kelly). …
Winifred Woodhull, « Ecrire, sans nul héritage »