Algiers’ International Festival of Literature and of Young People’s Literature (FELIV) opened on June 11 on Riadh El Feth’s esplanade and ran through June 20. Most evenings, the public was invited to two debates, where guest speakers, guided by a moderator, discussed the role of literature:
By Nadia Ghanem
“The (literary) writing of history” was the topic of Sunday, June 15’s discussion between French author and Goncourt prize winner Jean Rouaud (Fields of Glory, 1990) and Algerian writer Abdelkader Djamai (La Dernière nuit de l’Emir, 2012). France Culture producer Catherine Pont-Humbert aptly moderated the talk around the following questions:
In the historical novels you’ve written, where was the frontier between what is lived and what is history?
Rouaud was clear on this. For him, “every novel, except sci-fi, is a historical novel.” From the moment a narrative’s tense is in the past, the memory of the author is involved. This memory is either realistic or inspired by reality. To see the frontier, we must consider time (tense in writing) and testimonies, that is memory, the perceptible memory of the author and that of his contemporaries. There is a story, a narrative essentially, in every family. Beyond the intimacy of a family’s memory, we have a collective memory as well as a live memory where witnesses are still present. The information around which a novel is constructed belongs is located at a given moment (Time) and at a given place (Space).
This, for him, is what constitutes history.
As regards history, Rouaud sees that “historical history” relies on several factors: on a scientific approach to information-gathering built not on impressions but on scientific research; on a certain conception of history defined by a (political) dogma at a given moment, and on “l’histoire evènementielle,” past events that were once current events.
Therefore, “History is a vast field for the imaginary.”
For Djemai, the frontier between history and experience is personal memory, and also suffering.
“I am not a historian,” he insisted. “I do not have their sense of rigour; I work on emotions.”
He explained that he writes down an experience recounted emotionally, and it is a “history personalised.”
“Narratives also come from suffering,” as every family has a relation to suffering. For example, war leaves traces. It is those traces that give rise to family historical novels.
What is your relationship to reality when you write historical novels?
Djemai was concerned with the believable and informative aspect of the representation of the past he weaves in his novels.
“How can I create fiction that can pass for history? I have to research seriously and I need to document myself.” He stressed that he sees himself as a storyteller, a history-teller whose stories a reader should enjoy and from which he should learn something. He considers that writing should also function as a vector for the transmission of information.
Rouaud remarked that the relationship between reality and history is based on distance — the distance of time. When history is recent, events or characters are not so flexible or pliable because they are still alive in the collective memory. When this proximity of time is passed however, we enter the historical novel’s domain and a looser space in which to write.
What about war in historical novels?
“Our imaginary is marked by wars,” Rouaud said. He pointed out that in the 20th century, more people know how to read and write, they can therefore tell their story by writing it. Before, only one social class could do this. Now, even the suffering party can testify. Djemai calls this previous state the absence of voices, those of injured parties, or “silent suffering.”
“They are the truncated voices” in history.
Rouaud pounced on this to make a very interesting statement about Algeria.
“The official history of France is a creation, it is a fiction.” French history was created to build the foundations of a nation-state and fix it. “There are all those history forgot,” Rouaud said, which prompted Djemai to add, “we must speak for those who are no longer here.”
A reader might believe everything that a historical novel contains. “It is dangerous.”
Rouaud however warned that “this is double-edged.” A reader might believe everything that a historical novel contains. “It is dangerous.”
In Algeria, we are at a time when two histories are competing. Both are visible and fragile. One version will eventually win, only one because they are too distinct and separate to merge. The winning version will turn into indelible ink and will redefine and fix a mythology. Mythologies are crucial for the unity and the cohesion of a people. Mythologies define and delimit the acceptable and the fearsome, the laudable and the base. They fix codes, their symbols delimit a beginning, they set space, geographies, and a past tense.
The official version of Algeria’s history is currently being created and the fiction is nearly complete. In parallel, the voice of history’s not-yet-forgotten shouts out loudly both in collective memory, too recent to be fictionalised, and in historical novels based on too many testimonies that agree, an altogether different versions than those presented in official statements. A phenomenal arm-wrestling match is being played out here. The safeguard of memory versus its erasure.
Collective memory is now safeguarded in historical novels, but give it another fifty years to tire and these acts of remembrance will not disappear: They will be hailed as fictional, fancied, factually suspicious, while the now fictitious official version will have become as fixed and set as a gravestone.
I asked Rouaud what side he sees winning. He was very optimistic, saying that eventually, when time recedes and becomes not so raw, the duty of remembrance (devoir de mémoire) that lies at the core of Algerian literary efforts will come out of the official shadows and will make history. It was heart-warming that he was so positive. I, however, believe the zombies will win. Collective memory is now safeguarded in historical novels, but give it another fifty years to tire and these acts of remembrance will not disappear: They will be hailed as fictional, fancied, factually suspicious, while the now fictitious official version will have become as fixed and set as a gravestone.
Then an era made of different gods, protective and vengeful, will begin. Will they be winged? Will they be moustached?