The springboard was my reading of two newly released titles, both translated from the French: Rashid Boudjedra’s The Barbary Figs, trans. André Naffis-Sahely, and Henri Alleg’s The Algerian Memoirs, trans. Gila Walker. (There is also a new graphic novel out by an American duo about Algeria’s six-year war for independence, but that’s another kettle of snappers.)
Boudjedra’s and Alleg’s books are similar in that 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 the hell went wrong? Beyond that, they are very different books, both aesthetically and philosophically.
Henri Alleg is an exceptional (Anglo-Jewish-Communist-redhead) Frenchman. He stood against colonialism and was granted Algerian citizenship by post-war FLN leadership. So certainly, if any Frenchman is “allowed” to write about Algeria, it is Alleg. But what’s interesting about Alleg’s book is not where it reflects on Algeria — there, he seems to miss so much — but where it reflects on being European in Algeria, and what Algeria meant to the French.
I don’t ask Alleg to be my “informant” about Algeria (nor Boudjedra, whose project is anyhow fictional), but to reflect on what it meant to be a Frenchman in this time and place; part of the colonial power although struggling against it.
Where Alleg is disappointing as a memoirist is not in his depiction of events — these were page-turning — but in the paucity of self-reflection. He says at one point, late in the book, that he regrets falling into the “Stalin cult of personality.” But we know neither how he came to this realization nor what the discovery cost him. He mentions the events around him and places himself as a journalist — largely transparent — without digging too deeply into the mirror.
Boudjedra’s narrator, on the other hand, kicks brutally at the mirror, smashing it, staring into the fragments, cutting himself with them, in a reading experience that is compelling if sometimes very brutish.
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.” I think many, many Anglo novelists have set their books in places they haven’t been, and it’s doubtful that Shamsie wants any more novels like those described in Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How To Write About Africa.”
No, no more like that. But what’s interesting, I think, is when the mirror is also turned sharply on the self.