The Obstinate Snail
By Rachid Boudjedra, trans. Leon Stephens
Las Cruces: Xenos Books, 2013 (first in French, 1979)
It was a long time that none of the fictions of Rachid Boudjedra, one of Algeria’s most celebrated contemporary novelists, were available in English. A section of The Obstinate Snail was published in translation in Banipal’s seventh issue, along with an excerpt from his novel Turmoil, but neither received rapid translation into English. Then, all at once, Boujedra’s The Barbary Figs was published in English in early 2013 (trans. Andre Naffis-Sahely) and The Obstinate Snail (trans. Leon Stephens) trailed doggedly along after.
The Obstinate Snail is a short work – just 97 pages – crafted from short, often emotionally flattened sentences. The book’s sentences and scenes repeat, pulling us back to the same moments in a deft psychological realism, a “whirlpool” narration that mimics thought.
These repetitive monologues could be tiring if not for Boudjedra’s gift of pairing of the narrator’s alternately flattened and flowery prose with repressed sexuality, country proverbs, and absurd bureaucrat-speak. Phrases and images are repeated, but the contexts vary. The narrator remembers his mother saying, “The camel doesn’t see its hump,” and each time the proverb comes at a different moment, often to humorous effect.
The book’s language is carefully crafted, and — swinging between plain, direct sentences to dense natural imagery — is at the heart of the novella’s enjoyment. Translator Leon Stephens worked hard to echo Boudjedra’s shifts in diction, and for the most part rebuilds the book’s humor and beauty.
“My fellow citizens must already be wondering how to spend their day off. Soccer? A western? Get plastered? Religion? Dilemma. My head is teeming, and despite the jubilation resulting from my curiosity I have the sensation that miles of multicolored taffeta is being shredded under my skull. Another day splayed like a used napkin.”
The novel follows six days in the life of a post-colonial Arab bureaucrat as he ostensibly records his own story. This paranoid bachelor is a model (Algerian) State employee who is “too loyal to the State to believe in God,” although practical enough to donate to the construction of a nearby mosque. He works in the de-rat-ization department, ridding the city of the rats he loves and hates. He cherishes a group of them he keeps in his basement while also torturing others and plotting the species’ demise. He stands with France, Civilization, Rationality, and Cleanliness against poorer countries, sensuality, reproduction, and the flaccidity of begonias.
“I live alone myself. A sign of originality in this city crippled by demography and bad faith. My fellow citizens are unreasonable. They should be made to march to the tune of catastrophic slogans. Fortunately, they’re not as quick as rats, snails and pigs! The lower you descend in animal classification the more important reproduction is.”
The narrative is a collection of the protagonist’s usually clipped sentences, many of which he writes down and squirrels away in his twenty-one pockets, later collecting them into this narrative.
The absurd central character, driven by paranoia and nostalgia, worships at the altar of the deadening government office where he works, an office echoed in Sonallah Ibrahim’s 1992 novel Zaat. Boudjedra’s prose sometimes shares Ibrahim’s characteristic reportorial flatness, but also leaps into flights of dense, metaphoric language. This narrative instability is the book’s main narrative engine, the reason to keep turning pages. Sometimes, its paranoid, absurd narrator is full of anger and fear and nonsense. Sometimes, he has important social criticism:
“Unless I write to the WHO for a grant. I’ve already done that. But they’re miserly and won’t let go of a penny. I wonder what good all these international organizations are. If not to fatten some self-appointed experts who come to give us lessons and don’t know how to do anything except pick up princely remunerations and buy a few wool carpets. That’s too political. Get rid of it.”
Although ultimately not afraid of rats (he’s not shy of carrying a dead one in his pocket), the protagonist is nearly brought down by his overwrought terror of the slow, sensual garden snail, one of the echoes of what he hates about Algeria.
“I have always been on the side of the conquerors,” he writes on the sixth day. He hates the bus drivers who take him to work: one for complaining about rising prices, and the other for remaining quiet; he considers turning both into the police. Indeed, if the “rats” can be read a certain sort of Algerian dissident, chewing apart the national gas lines that take the country’s resources to foreign lands, then the “snails” are another sort, much more frightening to the narrator, living their lives in slow voluptuousness, refusing to go more than .03 meters an hour.
The translator notes in his afterword that Boudjedra’s absurdist novella also struck a chord with Russian readers, and that it was something of a bestseller in Soviet-era Moscow. It still strikes a chord now, both for its wonderful linguistic shifts and for how it highlights the oppositions and absurdities in all our contemporary “rational” civilizations.