Algerian novelist Samir Toumi’s L’Effacement was one of eight books shortlisted for this year’s Prix de la Littérature Arabe, one of only three titles written originally in French. This excerpt, translated by Alexandra Piscionere, appears courtesy of Barzakh Editions:
Piscionere writes that, on the narrator’s forty-fourth birthday, he “discovers that he no longer sees his reflection in the mirror. He decides to see a psychiatrist which prompts a beautiful journey of self-discovery and reflection. Samir Toumi’s novel explores universal themes of love and loss while offering a social commentary on life after the War of National Liberation in Algeria.”
The novel, according to The Nation, was “a sensation of the 2016 Algiers International Book Fair,” and it also won the Prix de l’Association France-Algérie earlier this year.
From The Effacement:
By Samir Toumi
Trans. Alexandra Piscionere
My first erasure happened the day of my forty-fourth birthday. That morning, I had woken up earlier than usual, well before my alarm rang. It was a rainy autumn day, the sky a pale gray. I dragged myself out of bed, my head heavy and my mind still fuzzy as I crawled to the bathroom. When I looked into the mirror, I didn’t see my reflection.
The mirror showed the reflected image of the door, of the bathrobe hung on the hanger attached to the white earthen wall, yet I remained invisible. Panicked, my heart racing, I rushed to the bedroom to stand in front of the big mirror. Still no reflection. I no longer existed. And yet, I could clearly feel my skin as I ran my fingers up and down my body, and when I lowered my eyes, I could make out my body in its entirety. But facing the mirror, I couldn’t see myself. I bit hard into my lip, I felt pain, and I vigorously rubbed the soles of my feet on the bedroom floor tiles to feel their coolness. The full-length mirror only reflected the curtains of the glass bay window diffusing the grayish light of daybreak. I went into the shower to feel the hot water burn my skin, and I frantically washed myself, going over every inch of my body.
No doubt, I was alive. I knew very well this compact mass that was my body, tangible and trembling. I therefore had not disappeared, I was not dead, and the sharp pain felt by my epidermis bared witness to my existence. I got out of the shower and ran my hand over the fogged up mirror. Through it, I saw an outline of a figure. I could make out the chest, then the arms, the hands, and little by little, my damp face, reddened skin and eyes wide open. My reflection had finally reappeared. In the bedroom, I carefully examined my entire body in order to reassure myself that none of it had disappeared.
My first erasure had come to an end. I could now get dressed, go out, and begin my day.
A few days later, I consulted Doctor B., a psychiatrist. Hamid, my co-worker, who I had always found to be obsequious and clingy, recommended him to me. Not long ago, the latter had declared to me, and not without some pride, that he was bipolar – something he had discovered at twenty years old – and that he was being monitored by the best specialists in Algiers. As soon as this first erasure happened, I passed him in the hallway and pretended that I was gravely worried about my mother. I told him that since my father’s death, which happened last year, my mother was chronically tired and morose and that I suspected the beginning stages of depression and had to urgently bring her to a skilled psychiatrist.
In fact, I only half lied. My mother, who, it’s true, had never been particularly talkative, really did decline into a state of apathy and worrisome silence. She spent her days napping on her sofa, facing the television which was permanently on. She communicated only to Bahja and Messaoud, the government, and the handyman in charge of tending to the family home. My exchanges with her, which had never been very chatty – I myself a man of few words -, were limited to mechanical salutations of hello and goodbye, accompanied with a kiss on the forehead.
My colleague Hamid seemed genuinely concerned. He came closer to me, widening his watery eyes, to grasp my arms in his wet and clammy hands. “Poor woman,” he said. “How could anyone live with the loss of such a great man, your father, the venerable Commander Hacène, renowned mujahid, tortured then condemned to death by the French Colonial Empire!” I turned my head in an attempt to conceal my revulsion, hoping he wouldn’t get into too much detail about my heroic father’s biography. I preempted this happening by releasing my arms from his slimy embrace and before turning on my heels, I dryly asked if he would give me the phone number of the best psychiatrist in Algiers.
As soon as I called, Doctor B., apparently not terribly overwhelmed at that time, answered at the first ring and offered to see me in the late afternoon of the same day. His office was located on the first floor of a small dilapidated building in one of the countless culs-de-sac in the Télemly district. At the entrance of the building, a broken plastic plaque indicated that Doctor Mohamed Ali B. was a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and assistant professor at the Hôpitaux de Paris. The doorbell didn’t work, so I knocked on the old wooden door which, curiously, gave way at once. A little bald man, almost in his sixties, with an air of reserve, stood in front of me. Straightaway, I could tell that this was Doctor B. In a frail and slightly hoarse voice, he asked me to wait in the small entrance hall which served as a waiting room. Seated on a plastic chair, I mechanically browsed one of the old torn magazines which had been haphazardly thrown on the coffee table. Fifteen minutes later, Doctor B. had me enter a small adjoining office and sit on an old gray velvet armchair which was considerably sagging but comfortable. The doctor sat facing me on a small wooden chair and scribbled in his small notebook while sniffing loudly. A few minutes passed and, without looking at me, he asked me to explain my problem. I told him what had happened with the mirror, and he began taking notes. Several times throughout, I thought I saw his lips upturned –amused – especially when I explained that the incident in question happened on my forty-fourth birthday.
Doctor B. delicately placed his pen and his notebook on a small pedestal table, carefully removed his glasses, looked at me, and cleared his throat to announce that I was suffering from erasure syndrome.
According to Doctor B., this little-known affliction mainly affected Algerian males born after independence. Most often, those afflicted didn’t exhibit early symptoms until they were in their forties. I asked him if he knew the cause of this erasure syndrome. He sighed and told me that certain hypotheses were being tested. It was suspected that the affliction was spread through inter-generational transmission, within the same family, of trauma experienced during the War of National Liberation. Other causes were suspected such as problems related to upbringing and even neurological causes linked to the deterioration of a specific zone of the temporal lobe. Doctor B. didn’t even tell me anything about the origins and the effects (which apparently aren’t even widely known) before concluding that the only remedy was psychotherapy, as it would help me identify the actual causes of my erasure. He also warned me: the phenomenon of my disappearing reflection risked increasing if I didn’t wholeheartedly throw myself into this therapy regimen. As is my usual way, I didn’t ask any questions, and as soon as he finished talking, I got up to pay for my session and to write down the date of our next appointment.
The moment we left the room, Doctor B. asked me if my father was a mujahid and if he was still with us. I responded that he was, in fact, a former soldier, and that he had died last year. I thought I saw Doctor B. smile as he closed the door.
The next day, I passed my colleague Hamid in the lunchroom. As soon as he saw me, he swooped down on me to greet me. I nodded my head and muttered a “hello” which dissuaded him from touching me with his clammy hand. I never liked physical contact very much, and Hamid particularly repulsed me. With a knowing air, he asked me, in a low voice, if my mother had consulted Doctor B. I thanked him and said that I was sure that thanks to the advice and instructions of the doctor, everything was going to back to normal. With eyes watering and bright, he invited me to have lunch with him to give him more details. I pretended to have a pressing appointment and hurried to leave the lunchroom, nauseated by his close proximity. At work – and elsewhere – I didn’t go out of my way to see anyone, since human contact tends to excessively stress me out.
Alexandra Piscionere is a French translator who is passionate about making French-Arab literature accessible to the English-speaking world. She is also a human rights attorney based in New York City and holds a BA in International Affairs from the Elliott School of The George Washington University.