Mohammed Dib and ‘The Savage Night’

Algerian literature—in both its French and Arabic flowerings—is a rich one. Francophone Algerian literature has had a significant impact in France and other French-speaking nations; Arabic literature from Algeria has not been as regionally influential, although there are individual exceptions. In any case, both French and Arabic writing by Algerians has been under-appreciated by English-language readers.

One of the more glaring omissions is French-writing Algerian Mohammed Dib.

At the moment, the most internationally well-known Algerian author is probably Assia Djebar, who also writes in French. Djebar, who’s written Women in their Apartments and Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade, among other works, has been mentioned off and on as a contender for the Nobel Prize.

Within the Arabic-reading world, the most popular Algerian author must be Ahlam Mosteghanemi, whose Memory in the Flesh and Chaos of the Senses have both their fans and their detractors. Nizar Qabbani is said to have remarked that Mosteghanemi’s prose made him “dizzy,” whereas Egyptian commentator Youssef Rakha has complained about the “patently poor quality of Mostaghanmi’s writing – almost universally regarded as some of the worst ever produced in the language, whether or not it ended up selling well.”

Whether you’re pro or anti-Mosteghanemi, she can be read in English. But there have been a number of complaints about the translation of Memory in the Flesh, lately revised by Peter Clark. Mosteghanemi’s Nessyane.Com is due out in English translation this year from Bloomsbury-Qatar.

Among the Algerian Arabic-writing authors on the “Top 100” list from the Arab Writers Union are Taher Wattar, who died last year, Rachid Boudjedra, and Zahwar Wanissi. Only Taher Wattar, I believe, has had a little work translated into English.

But: Back to our largely unknown (in English) subject. Dib (1920-2003) was a product of French education and didn’t write in Arabic, but he is nonetheless a powerful force in Algerian history and literature.

Born during French colonial rule, Dib was a firm advocate of Algerian independence. For his troubles, he was expelled by the French in 1959. He moved to France, where his work was eventually celebrated. However, while he wrote more than 30 novels and numerous short stories and poems, the only book of his that’s easily accessible in English translation is the short-story collection The Savage Night (Bison Books, 2001). His novel Who Remembers the Sea was published by Three Continents Press in 1985, but it is out of print. Dib’s novel in poetry L.A. Trip was published by Green Integer in 2003. You can read some excerpts online.

Two translations of Dib’s short stories are also available online, one from Banipal—“The Companion“—and the other “Bloodred Dew,” from Words Without Borders.

Dib, who experimented with a wide variety of styles during his lifetime, wrote that the one element that unifies his work is the “inexplicability of human brutality.”

There are many excellent moments in the collection The Savage Night. However, its title story is undoubtedly the most arresting. In it, a brother and sister are traveling together to bomb a public place. The perspective is so close that the reader never learns the reason for this terrifying deed, but rather is locked inside the protagonists’ emotional world and their feelings for one another. The story, which never pans out beyond its protagonists, is sympathetically but unflinchingly told.

Despite a small wave of appreciation for The Savage Night, little more of Dib’s work has made its way into English. He cannot be unknown to publishers: In 1994, he received the Francophone Grand Prix, the highest literary prize awarded by the Académie Française. However, since Dib is now deceased, there seems little likelihood of a renaissance—although, well, if Egyptians can peacefully overthrow Hosni Mubarak in 17 days…well, anything is possible.

A little more Dib:

Dib’s poem Guardian Shadow, translated by Pierre Joris

His obituary in The Guardian