Scholar, reader, and ArabLit contributor Nadia Ghanem tries to put her finger on a major shift in Algerian Francophone literature and why there is so much that disappoints her:

By Nadia Ghanem

Borrowed from the "A Lego a Day" website.
Borrowed from the “A Lego a Day” website.

If you imagine language as a big Lego castle, you would see that it was made of many different sorts of blocks. Vocabulary would make up one lot. The arrangement of words — or syntax — would make up another. The rules that organise words-strings — or sentences — would give yet another shape to the Lego castle, called grammar. Add hues for morphology and phonology and start building or deconstructing.

When I began looking into Francophone Algerian detective-stories and Francophone Algerian literature in general  — I am still looking for works in Algerian languages — I was searching for a particular kind of Lego castle arrangement.

As I began investigating from abroad, the majority of works I found were from before the 1990s. The libraries in London to which I had access had been supplied with Algerian books up to a certain period. After that, supplies had clearly come to a halt, only to pick up years later, with writers who boast international clout, such as Waciny Laredj, Boualem Sansal, Assia Djebbar, and the incontournable Khadra. I don’t think the Black Decade of the 1990s affected supplies –there seems to have been a cut in relations and interest that predated or perhaps sealed it.

Now that I am in Algeria, I have had access to recently published works, those brought out between 2000 and today. The gap between the texts what were published pre-1990s and what gets published today is as remarkable as it is deep.

So: What do I mean by gap, and what do I mean by texts?

The Gap

I am not referring to a generation problem.

Most of the recent novels I’ve picked up were written by authors who are by no means young. After all, I’m not an ageist. These are authors in their 50s, or at the youngest in their 40s. They’re well-oiled writers, most of them active journalists familiar with the written word.

But let me tell you about Francophone journalists in Algeria for a minute. The country is divided on the surface between two languages. I say “on the surface” because it is an unrepresentative and engineered division created to divide, more on that perhaps elsewhere. These two surface languages are French and Modern Standard Arabic.  University is the last stage in an education that academically revolves around these two language poles, and there is a formal branch of study at university for journalism, which is taught in Arabic. It includes communication, with subjects such as radio, and so on.

The Francophone press does not recruit its journalists from that branch — not mostly anyway, everything has an exception, especially in Algeria — because they are after Francophones with a solid mastery of the written word. To find such individuals, they go to graduates with a Bachelors in the French language, or a Bachelors in translation, or they go for graduates who come from a branch and speciality where study was done in French.<

Baccalaureat grades decide what a student will study, although students can indeed choose to “downgrade.” If a student has a high Baccalaureat grade and is destined to study medicine — the highest study status in the country — he or she can certainly choose to go for the lower rated architecture studies instead. But a majority will follow where their grades take them.

Language study doesn’t require high grades, so recruiting language students to work as journalists does not even ensure a good mastery of the language, it only ensures an academic level of the language. That is: If you know how to build grammatically correct sentences and have a wide vocabulary from 19th century French literature, it is assumed that you’ll be a skilled journalist.

Thus, a wide and rich vocabulary and perfectly correct grammatical sentences is exactly what marks Francophone literature published here…

Thus, a wide and rich vocabulary and perfectly correct grammatical sentences is exactly what marks Francophone literature published here, at least from what I gather of the works published since 2000 that I’ve read. Matters of syntax are pure skill, and style seems mostly to have disappeared from texts.

The Texts 

You might think that the detective-novel style is a light one, but when you read authors such as Benjamin Black, aka the poet John Banville, you realise what kind of literary-wonders authors can produce with and through this genre.  What I have found striking in the DZ version of this genre is that the content, the ideas for stories are brilliant, but the style used is undergoing a massive crisis when I compare it with what was produced only just 20 years ago.

It is enough to write a dissertation at school, and it is in that category that I would put most of the books I have come across so far.

It is difficult to talk about literary style, which is why I talk about syntax. Syntax — the way words are organised out of sheer instinct and skill or out of an author’s conscious effort — is one of the tangible aspects of style. The problem or the problematic lies at syntax’s door. Knowing how to make grammatically correct sentences is not enough to write a novel. It is enough to write a dissertation at school, and it is in that category that I would put most of the books I have come across so far. My criticism might just be the result of accidental reads and suffering from rotten luck when picking up books, but it has happened too often for me not to start making links with what is indeed affecting Algerian Francophone literature, generally speaking.

Writers have lost touch with building characters, their depth is paper-thin. Description of events and surroundings is amazingly detailed and this is where the power of the author’s hold on vocabulary is put to use, but the result is overworked and suffocates both the page and the imagination. There is no fluidity: going from one scene is a trial with no flow. Ideas float, but find no dharf zaman or dharf makan, vessels from which to be born. Space between building blocks finds no natural place.

Word-strings — sentences — are exclusively built on subject-verb-object-complement, and there is no variety, no play on elisions, deletions, no displacement, no preposing, no postposing, no word-order shuffling. Words march. Their cadence is military.

Word-strings — sentences — are exclusively built on subject-verb-object-complement, and there is no variety, no play on elisions, deletions, no displacement, no preposing, no postposing, no word-order shuffling. Words march. Their cadence is military. The military is everywhere in Algeria: It is clicking its heels in between the lines.

Have you noticed in journalistic articles in DZ how the object is practically always placed first in titles and how pieces are built on the object-subject-verb pattern or object-verb in the passive-indirect subject structure? That is the cadence of Francophone Algerian journalism. And just like its literary relative, it is frozen.

Diagnosis: Words suffer from chronic placement. Words have become Lego blocks arranged only according to the poster in the Lego box. Copy-paste. Copy style-paste.

BUT. That is not to say there aren’t any wonderful authors out there, notably Chawki Amari who is becoming one of my favourite writers because he has loosened his word-order. Under his pen, word units breathe….

BUT. That is not to say there aren’t any wonderful authors out there, notably Chawki Amari who is becoming one of my favourite writers because he has loosened his word-order. Under his pen, word units breathe, their order stretches and hugs its elements back. If it wasn’t for the ink that fixes them to a page, they would evaporate and go live freely in the many hues of blue that make Algerian skies and captures the many hues of the Algerians living under them.

Publishing in Algeria

There must be few writers here who realise the luck they have of being an author in Algeria. Simply because publishing houses publish just about anything, certainly on the strength of friendships but also perhaps State funding, which means they don’t worry about profit, that is selling.

Authors aren’t all evil, of course, and one of their problems might also lie in the fact that there are no editors, no one to read and critically delete redundant parts, advise and restructure what needs to be reset.

And this, although it causes readers like me atrocious hours spent not giving up on an author, is really wonderful. To live in a place that will print you and distribute you no matter your talent is precious. Authors aren’t all evil, of course, and one of their problems might also lie in the fact that there are no editors, no one to read and critically delete redundant parts, advise and restructure what needs to be reset.

Syntax Crisis and Famous-Five-maturity 

Is this syntax crisis a problem that the education system planted decades ago? A comparison with what is going on in Algerian literature produced in Arabic would have to be made, and I won’t be capable of reading in Arabic for some time.  If the education system is at the root of the textual crisis in Algeria — an education system that makes people believe their language is a corruption, an approximate vehicle for communication called a dialect — then we would find a textual crisis in literature produced in Arabic as well.

And wouldn’t it be funny to find the exact opposite of what is going on in Francophone lit: a fantastic style but wretched poor content and ideas.

Well, I’ll let you do the reading in Arabic for now.

Nadia Ghanem tweets at @ayatghanem.

Also by Nadia: How To Foster Multilingualism in Algeria?

6 thoughts on “Algeria’s ‘Crisis in Syntax’

  1. I find myself wondering if Algerian Francophone writers might find influence in Algerian Francophone music – I think of Idir, Djura, Rachid Taha, among many others… their eloquence comes, in part, from a refusal to be exclusively francophone, instead borrowing from many languages to create a linguistic pastiche that mimics the polyglossism of France and its former colonies. Not to mention character development! Think about Taha’s cover and video for the song “Ecoute-moi, camarade,” for example…

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  2. Knowing the mechanisms of any ,language doesn’t make turn you into a writer any more than knowing the ingredients of a cake doesn’t make you a patissiere.

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