For Women in Translation Month, our Algeria editor writes about one of her favorite discoveries, whose La Planète Mauve et Autres Nouvelles should certainly be brought into English
By Nadia Ghanem
In six years of rummaging through Algerian literature, Safia Ketou’s sci-fi story “The Mauve Planet” remains my favorite find. Born Zohra Rabhi in 1944, Safia Ketou wrote children books, poetry (Citar Friends ‘Amie Cithare’), plays (Asma) and short stories. It is in her collection The Mauve Planet and Other Stories that I discovered her sci-fi inclinations. Ketou is probably the first contemporary Algerian novelist to have written science-fiction in French. I have come across no other Algerian novelists interested in sci-fi during this period, out of those who wrote in the French language, and have personally elected her the first sci-fi writer of post-independence Algeria. Someone must have written sci-fi in Arabic, and she or he remains to be found.
After Ketou, I am aware that Cherif Arbouz has written a four volume sci-fi saga in French, the first published in 2010, when Arbouz was 80! But fantasy seems to have generated more interest than sci-fi, with Anys Mezzaour the young author of a fantasy trilogy published from 2013. The French Institute also runs a yearly competition for ‘best fantasy short story’, and produces an anthology that features the winner’s story and those of selected participants – volumes I could never get a hold of.
The Mauve Planet and Other Stories (La Planète Mauve et Autres Nouvelles) is a collection of short stories written by Ketou between 1962 and 1978. I’ve often wondered if the inescapable situations in which she places her characters mirror her own anxieties. Safia Ketou committed suicide in 1989. But the worlds she imagined are not all dark, there is much light and colour to them, with tight friendships, humourous banter, and coffee and cigarettes, the two comforting companions of many a character in Algerian literature of the 1970s, transformed to pizza with olives by the novelist Chawki Amari by the 2000s.
Berber folktales are also omnipresent, with protagonists who must never forget their manners and absolutely avoid rudeness, even when they are tried by extraterrestrial hosts with a taste for kidnap. In her titular story, Ketou’s sense of humor is mostly expressed through her choice of settings, in a bar a zillion light years away from planet Algeria, or during a feast where characters still harass aliens with questions about marriage and political doctrines.
“The Mauve Planet” is a sci-fi story set on planet XYRYX. Nude in style and limpid in voice, it begins in the tone of a childhood tale until suddenly the ground opens and horror engulfs the story. “The Mauve Planet” follows Alym and Ryad, two astronauts who board their space shuttle Faiza 7 for what appears to be a standard mission. Along the way, a powerful force-field makes Faiza 7 veer off course, toward an unchartered planet. Forced to land, both men are summoned to visit the leader for a little chat that will alter their fate.
The hijacking of a trajectory, the suffocation and near-madness experienced by the characters, the promise of luxury if they comply, and tampered milk, read as a wink to the challenges that would follow 1962. Even from space, some things appeared inescapable in Algerian history.
Safia Ketou is all but forgotten today. Her work has not been republished, nor has it been translated. And yet she is probably the first sci-fi writer in contemporary Algerian literature. To put Ketou’s work on the map and give her name a little visibility, “The Mauve Planet” is given below in English translation. Much could be improved in my version, and a lot more remains to be translated from Ketou’s work. But like St Augustine said, “Though we cannot adjust the wind we can adjust the sails.” Just kidding, St Augustine didn’t give a fig about sailing, but you know what I mean.
The Mauve Planet
By Safia Ketou
Translated by Nadia Ghanem
Ryad and Alym checked the flight deck of their space shuttle Faiza 7 together. They filled up the tank and bought provisions from the astronauts’ shop. Their new space-suit, made from a material resistant to every condition, had just been delivered. Now finally ready, the two astronauts waved to the commander of Base 88 and climbed in their pod. They were leaving the earth just as the first snowflakes were landing on the ground.
The first part of the voyage went smoothly. The galaxies’ splendid hues and their shimmer filled the screen with scintillating poetry. Ryad was humming in his cabin looking at the stars while Alym kept an eye on the steering-needles, chewing on vitamin pills. To calm his nerves, Ryad put his seat in semi-horizontal position and took a nap.
Alym’s attention was suddenly drawn to his control panel. The steering-needles had begun to move about and the ignition levers were flashing, signaling an alarm. Worried, Alym tried to stabilize the needles but in vain. Instinctively, his teammate awoke and started radio-calling the Air Base. The only sound received was muddled and rustling, impossible to decipher. The airwaves were scrambled. He thought out loud:
– We are cut off from Earth.
– We are changing direction, said Alym who was observing the control panel.
The space shuttle was supposed to go toward the moon, where a new base had been built in 1980, but a curious phenomenon was altering Faiza 7’s trajectory. The direction that the shuttle was following appeared irresistibly attracted by a force leading them toward Shipwreck-Space.
Greatly distressed, Alym called out:
– The Tenth Space!
– We’re finished, said Ryad, his eyes fixed on the control panel.
But when it reached 90 degrees, the main needle stabilised, and the alarm signals stopped flashing.
– Our shuttle seems auto-guided, noticed Alym.
– Who is this super pilot leading us by the nose? asked Ryad, intrigued.
This question, although somewhat premature, relaxed the atmosphere. The two astronauts looked at each other, and burst out laughing, a pleasant release when their chest up to now had been tight with anguish.
Soon, a large planet, mauve in colour, appeared on Faiza 7’s front screen. A surprise whistle escaped Ryad. His companion hurried to switch on the system’s powerful cameras.
– A photo souvenir for my wife, he said with a cheeky wink.
Ryad pulled a sceptical face:
– You are very optimistic, to hope to see her again.
– Why shouldn’t I be?
– That’s true, Ryad admitted, I’m being dramatic.
– Let’s take the Y pills, advised Alym.
– We will need all our faculties, yes.
– Take the R pills also.
– Okay, but…
An unexpected crackling sound interrupted him mid-sentence. The two pilots jumped from fear, their anguish now high, when a voice made their rear-microphone vibrate.
– Earthlings, do you hear me?
A heavy silence followed the question just spoken. Utter fright. The two men were barely breathing. Ryad tried to break from his suffocation but could not make a sound. Pale, Alym was in control enough to whisper:
– He spoke in Esperanto.
The mysterious voice immediately explained:
– We know every language.
Ryad, back in control of himself, listened carefully and kept an eye on the voice-recorders that had just kicked in. Now completely back to his usual self-control, Alym asked:
– Who are you?
– I am the leader of the XYRYX.
Meanwhile, Faiza 7 had landed softly like a falling leaf on an autumnal ground.
– Where are we? Ryad said.
The voice with no face replied:
– You are on the Mauve Planet.
– I’ve never heard of it, admitted Ryad.
– Take off your protective suits and come out of your shuttle.
– Is there oxygen on this planet? Alym worried.
– There is, yes, you will not need your helmets.
The two men did not wait. They took off their space suits, left their respective pods, and crossed the barrier that lead them to the exit. Unfamiliar perfumes tickled their nose. When they reached the bottom of the ladder, they stopped to breathe in the air and fill their lungs with the sweet breeze that played with their hair. While waiting for instructions from the leader of planet XYRYX, the two companions exchanged their first impressions in code. They were no longer anxious. Fear had turned to curiosity. The pair had always been fond of new experiences and suspense.
They awaited further instructions almost impatiently. Nothing. The strange voice had stopped. The two men began to walk on the mauve sand, spread as far as the eye could see. According to their earth-watch, they had walked for only a few minutes when they saw that a green city was rising from the ground, about a hundred meters from where they stood. Thinking he was being tricked by a mirage, Alym asked Ryad:
– Are you seeing what I’m seeing?
– What are you seeing?
– A city that has just sprung up from the desert.
– Then it’s not a mirage, concluded Ryad with an comical accent which made Alym laugh nervously.
He felt he was losing grip of his senses.
– Go on, grumbled Ryad, we are both lost in a mauve desert with a moveable city that pops up from the ground, and Mister Happy Alym finds it perfectly okay somehow to explode with laughter!
– What … Alym was trying to explain but was again shaken with irrational laughter.
– Don’t choke yourself, I haven’t taken my first aid kit.
– To butcher me with! No thanks.
The two men were making their way to the main avenue of the green city as they argued.
– I really could do with a coffee, said Ryad, seeing a drinking area through the transparent walls of the city.
– Let’s go in, Alym decided, pushing the door.
A hubbub welcomed the two men. Twenty people in metallic clothing, some sitting some standing, were in the bar. They were completely flat and wore a number on their chest. Their heads had two faces; they did not need to turn to examine who had come in and in a second the realization of the two men’s arrival froze the assembly. A hush descended. Ryad felt a threat floating over them and turned pale. Alym did not hesitate. In a measured tone, he spoke to the room in these terms:
– We are earthlings and we have arrived on your planet by accident.
A few exclamations were heard. One of the men raised his hand to call for calm. He came to meet the two men and declared:
– It was not an accident.
Ryad whistled and Alym said:
– How so?
The man, who wore a number 318 on his clothing, made an appeasing gesture:
– Your deviation was provoked.
– Why? Ryad asked.
– You will know in good time.
Upon hearing this evasive answer, Ryad and Alym looked at each other, not in the least bit enthusiastic about this news. XYRYX 318 invited them to sit down and signalled to the barman. As soon as he did so, the two guests were served two glasses filled with a whitish liquid. The drink had an indefinable taste and they had a difficult time hiding their cringing faces while drinking.
XYRYX 318 was keeping an eye on the content level. Seizing an opportune moment, he amiably offered:
– Do you want some more?
Ryad hurriedly and revealingly replied:
– No thank you.
Alym tried to repair his companion’s rudeness.
– It’s tasty but, he said, but…
Not waiting to hear any more, XYRYX 318 called the waiter and the same drink was brought in larger glasses. There was enough to refresh a whale.
Ryad gave Alym a sideways look.
– It’s delicious isn’t it? he snarked.
Alym glared at him while smiling diplomatically to those around him. Taking advantage of a moment during which XYRYZ 318 was distracted, he emptied his glass in a flower pot. I hope this won’t hurt it, he thought.
Very relaxed, Ryad began to question his host.
– Why is this city moving, he asked?
– It’s a preventive measure against an atomic war, explained XYRYX 318.
– That’s astute.
– This way, during the day, soldiers guard the city, weapon in hand. At night, we make the city go down below ground so that everybody can rest running no risks.
– So why don’t you continually live underground?
– Because of the air system.
– Yes, this planet’s air is called Pleasure Air. It also stops old age.
– And what effect does it have on people from planet earth?
– That’s what we’re going to find out, declared XYRYX 318 standing up. Come with me.
The two men followed XYRYX 318 outside. Once out, he took out of his pocket a device not bigger than a matchbox. He pressed on it and asked:
– You do know this, don’t you?
– No, admitted Alym.
– It’s a radio-control for a car. Wherever I am, my vehicle can find me as soon as I call for it.
And as he spoke, the rolling engine stopped neatly before the two surprised men who exclaimed:
– With no driver!
XYRYX 318 smiled:
– It’s radio-controlled. The engine also works everywhere, in the air, underwater or on ground level.
– That’s wonderful, Ryad exclaimed, walking around the multiform machine.
– Do you want to go in? offered XYRYX 318, opening the doors.
– With pleasure, the two men replied, climbing in the strange car.
XYRYX 318 got behind the wheel. He started up the engine and he said:
– Even though it is automatic, I prefer to drive it myself as in the good old days.
The car-boat-plane machine rode on firm ground a little, then took off in the air. The two men realized they could look at the city and the fields of the Mauve Planet through enlarging glass-windows. A symphony of colours charmed their dazzled eyes. The landscape was so harmonious that Ryad felt his painter’s fingers tickle. He felt himself become a child again, sat before an illustrated book, just for an instant. Next to him and rocked by the machine’s regular movements, Alym felt a sweet drowsiness overtake him. XYRYX 318 was a very good driver.
Suddenly, a sort of a brontosaur-shape rose up on the horizon, almost touching the windshield. Seeing the monster, a scream escaped the two men. Their host began to laugh:
– You are scared, he noted.
– It’s …. It’s a monster, stuttered Ryad.
– Not at all, XYRYX 318 said.
– What is it? stammered Alym.
– A castle, that’s all.
– That’s all, repeated Alym.
After the beauty of the landscape, it was a peculiar sight. Grey with fright, Ryad murmured:
– This is where our leader resides, the driver said.
He’s got tastes, thought Alym, while his companion was elbowing him in the ribs lightly in common understanding. The two men began to examine the aspect of this strange residence. It seemed to be made out of materials unknown to them. A true aesthete, Ryad was shocked. He could not help but observe:
– Strange architecture. Who could have conceived such a thing?
– Me, quietly replied XYRYX 318.
– Oh, do forgive me, sputtered Ryad, blushing.
– That’s quite all right, it’s nothing.
– You are not offended?
– No, because your opinion matters little to me.
Alym was waiting for this opportunity.
– Ha! Take that! he triumphantly punctuated.
Ryad raised his shoulders. The XYRYX touched a handle. The vehicle lost altitude and softly landed on the main roof. Opening his door, XYRYX 318 explained:
– This residence is also a spaceship.
– A spaceship? exclaimed Alym, who was passionate about mechanics.
– Yes, it’s practical, our leader frequently takes off on last minute trips.
Having left the plane to the care of technicians, the three of them entered the place via elevator stairs. Amazing! While the exterior of this rocket-palace was plain looking, its interior was delightful and welcoming, like the case of a jewel. In the first room, the walls were luminescent, the draperies were fragrant, and convertible furniture was set among an ultra-modern decor. XYRYX invited the two men to sit down. He checked the time on his ring-watch and left them alone. Alym and Ryad went around the room, face to face with previously unimaginable objects. Their host was taking some time to come back, so they began to smoke the nourishing-cigarettes they found.
– Exquisite! Ryad said approvingly, inhaling a second time.
– Yes, agreed Alym, they are much better than ours.
Having browsed through a comic strip left in the room, Ryad lay down on the air-conditioned sofa and fell instantly asleep. Soon after, Alym did the same, unable to resist the call of the soft pillows that sang calming melodies.
When they woke, the two men realized they had been moved to a bedroom with two beds. Ryad stretched himself for a long while before addressing his friend who had buried himself in fur.
– We are really being treated like princes, he said.
– Or like hostages, finished Alym.
– Don’t be such a pessimist, begged Ryad while readjusting his perfumed pillow.
– It is not pessimism but realism, corrected Alym.
Ryad laughed brushing it off:
– Look at this luxury. Isn’t it an ideal place to regain some strength?
Alym scratched his head, perplexed:
– I don’t see what XYRYX’s aim is.
– Nor do I, confessed Ryad, we will soon find out…
– You are a patient disciple of Madame Waiting.
– Let us say rather that I let myself live. And as long as there is life, there is hope.
– The theory is defensible, but if I must give you some advice, don’t believe in fairy stories.
– You are always so full of suspicions. You haven’t changed.
– Why should I change? My personality doesn’t vary according to my residence.
– As for me, I adapt to all environments.
– As you wish. But do recognise that we have not been brought here for our looks.
– Why not? he said. Maybe there is a lovely XYRYX princess who has fallen in love with one of us. She ordered her technicians to alter the trajectory our spaceship and…
Alym interrupted him:
– Stop dreaming, our reputation has not crossed to the Tenth dimension.
Seeing that his friend was taking this humourlessly, Ryad tapped him on the shoulder and calmly said:
– You are so credulous Alym, you take everything I say at face value.
– Of course I do, you never stop joking.
While they were talking, the two men examined the place with greater attention. They noticed several devices, the use or handling of which they did not recognize. The window was slightly ajar, and opened on a well-kept garden, filled with luminous flowers whose species was unknown to them.
A woman’s voice surprised the two pilots about an hour after they had freshened up:
– Would you like something to eat?
It was coming from the intercom on the wall. They replied yes. Immediately, a young woman, wearing number 1,000 on the front of her clothing, entered the bedroom. Her clothes were made of embroidered aluminum. She was pushing a rolling table full of beautifully presented dishes from which a delicious aroma floated. She welcomed them with a lovely smile and introduced herself as their guide and interpreter. Then she sat at the table in front of them to show them how to eat the Mauve Planet’s food. To make sure they were not lacking anything, she began to question them. They were feeling at ease and answered easily. XYRYX 1,000 was really a charming and cultivated hostess.
The two colleagues tasted each dish she served them. They noticed her thin fingers were adorned with gold filaments. Under her spell, they let themselves be rocked by her crystalline voice. She was insisting:
– Do take more fruits, they are very light.
Alym had many questions.
– Are there schools here? he asked.
– No, we are all autodidacts. Each one of us has a small device he can consult at any moment, anywhere.
– What do you call this instrument?
– We call it the Professor.
– The Professor?
– Yes, because we have the chance to ask it any question and it has the ability to answer all of them with exactitude.
– But who teaches you the basics?
– Our parents. When we are born, they provide us with food, accommodation, and clothing. At the same time, they become our educators until we acquire this teaching device, that is, the Professor.
– Do you get practical classes?
– There are science laboratories as well as pedagogical museums equipped with the most sophisticated tools. You can meet the planet’s greatest scientists and go and talk to them without asking for an appointment first.
– And what about language teaching?
– We rely on the audio-visual method. Our recorders and televisions have great recognition power. We can also be present and assist to any interplanetary conference.
Ryad also had questions for the young woman:
– How do marriages function here? he asked.
– There is nothing problematic about unions here. They function by number.
– What do you mean?
– Couples are formed very simply. For example, woman 120 will marry man 120.
– How odd, grunted Ryad. And are there divorces?
– Why not?
– Because for us, no problem is insoluble. A physical or moral discord is a disease we treat. There are remedies for all ills, a solution to all problems.
– It’s rational, but are you really happy?
– Happy? As much as one can be. I confess that personally, I aspire to nothing else if that is what you mean…
– Are you married? Asked Ryad.
She blushed but nonetheless replied:
– When Man 1,000 comes back from his mission, we will get married.
To stop his friend embarrassing their hostess any further, Alym asked:
– Could I ask, what doctrine have you chosen to live by on this planet?
– We have opted for scientific socialism. No one is in need here. We eliminated private property and state capitalism a long time ago. Social justice is a concrete reality. Our leader is not a dictator but a guide for us.
– So it’s a success, admitted Alym.
– Perfect, confirmed Ryad with a sneer.
Alym understood that his friend was making fun of him. He said to the interpreter:
– You know, my friend Ryad is a thorough capitalist.
– It shows, she said.
Suddenly, the mural intercom crackled and a man’s voice called out:
– Hello XYRYX 1,000?
– Yes, I’m listening.
– Bring the earthlings to our leader.
– Okay, over and out.
This brief discussion had taken place in a language foreign to the two men. XYRYX 1,000 translated it in these terms:
– Our leader is waiting for you.
Alym and Ryad followed the hostess through the flowery corridors of the spaceship-city. At the end of the last corridors, a door made of asbestos suddenly opened and four armed men proceeded to accompany the earthlings to the guide.
All seven ascended in an elevator that took them to the private chambers of the leader of XYRYX. Two ugly giants were guarding the entrance. XYRYX 1,000 spoke to them in a tongue unintelligible to the two men. After talking with each other, the guards signalled to the soldiers who were immobile and standing very straight. Promptly, they abandoned their military posture and searched the newcomers before letting them cross what was for them a threshold toward mystery.
As soon as they took their first step inside, the two men were spellbound. A bewitching music welcomed them. The beauty of the place was beyond worldly imagination. All sense of time had vanished, the atmosphere’s density seemed heavier to them, almost unbearable. Close to fainting, they were nonetheless walking behind a smiling hostess who kept turning around to check on them and reassure them.
Finally, she succeeded in dissipating the anguish that had engulfed them. With one movement of the hand, the music stopped. She dismissed the spell and she announced:
– Here is the leader of the XYRYX.
The earthlings’ eyes rested on the same spot. They saw a being with no head, lying on a round bed. He spoke in Esperanto:
– Sit down, Earth men.
They obeyed, keeping their eyes fixed on the leader who continued:
– I diverted your ship because I need you.
– Yes, I am about to die.
When he said these words, a woman’s voice came from some place hidden. It was a voice intensely sad that began to recite. The leader of the XYRYX heaved a long sigh and proceeded:
– Death is nigh.
A shudder froze the atmosphere. Alym tried to be warm and said:
– Well, one is never sure.
– I am, said the leader of the XYRYX, because when the people of this planet are about to die, they become invisible for a little while, just before death.
Frowning, the two men nodded dubiously. To convince them, the leader added:
– Can you not see that my head is no longer visible?
During these long moments, no comforting sound could have made the fear which had overtaken the room go away. Ryad could no longer stand this oppressive silence. He stood up and screamed, feeling himself go mad:
– Speak! Oh would you just speak!
The young woman came over to stop him as he was about to throw himself out of the window. She brought him back to his seat to make him drink a calming potion. Then, she pushed on a button hidden under the table. As soon as she did so, the calming sound of sea waves and seagulls could be heard. The atmosphere relaxed. Alym sighed with relief. But very much shaken, Ryad exclaimed:
– The sea! I want to see the sea!
The hostess replied to him gently:
– There is no sea on the Mauve Planet.
– It’s a recording, isn’t it? Alym said.
During this interminable exchange, the leader of the XYRYX had remained composed. Calmly, he spoke again:
– As I was telling you, my life is about to end…
– Alas…., cried the young girl.
– It will be a great loss for your people, Alym sympathized.
– You have just worded the crux of the matter. These people that I dearly love have always placed their trust in me while I was living. And my death must not alter anything.
– Yes, agreed Alym.
Ryad who had come back to his senses, asked:
– What can we do?
– It’s simple, I count on the two of you.
– On us? They were both stunned.
– Yes, let me explain …
He hesitated before beginning:
– Do you know that earth men become immortal when they come to this planet?
The two men opened their eyes wide and exclaimed in unison:
Seeing the effect of his revelation, the leader of the XYRYX gently laughed.
– And so? said Alym.
– And so, you have become indestructible.
Impulsively, Ryad applauded and cried out:
As for Alym, he only smiled and observed:
– When my wife finds out, she’s…
The leader of the XYRYX interrupted him:
– You wife will never see you again.
– What? said Alym, who couldn’t believe his ears.
– You will remain here, the leader said.
– But … what for?
– When I die, you will take my place.
– Leader of the XYRYX!
– Their eternal leader.
– Is this a proposition or an order?
– An order, the leader stressed.
Ryad felt that fear was overwhelming him. He wanted to act naïve:
– If I understand correctly, he said to his friend, you’re in real trouble.
Unperturbed, the leader added:
– You are in the same situation. You will be his deputy.
Immediately, Ryad did not feel like joking any longer. He was certain at present. The leader of the XYRYX would achieve his goal. Alym thought he was living a nightmare. He felt his mind quit him. Ryad saw such anguish in his friend’s eyes, he attempted a last plea:
– What about our families?
– Already, you no longer have families.
– It’s inconceivable! protested Alym.
With a calm voice, the leader of the XYRYX explained:
– Understand me well, he said, I do not want you to reproduce. The Mauve Planet must not be submerged by little earthlings and later by their descendants. In that event, my people would be in danger, especially because they themselves are mortals.
Ryad thought he’d found a breach in this argument and declared:
– Conclusion: you should let us go.
– No, my decision is made. Because I love my people, I want to thank them before I die. How? By delegating an eternal leader whose duty will be to safeguard unity and popular opinion.
– Until when? asked Alym.
– Until the end of planet XYRYX.
– Isn’t that so! Ryad said sarcastically, which means that….
– Which means that we will find ourselves totally alone…
The two men looked at each other and decided together:
– We are going to leave.
At this very instant, the leader of the XYRYX decided to be firm. Sternly he said:
– I will stop you.
– What if we try to run away? said Alym
– The signals of your spaceship are scrambled. If you turn back, you will become lost in space.
– How so? Ryad asked.
– Your spaceship would wander forever in between planets, never able to land anywhere.
They were speechless. They looked at each other. An indescribable sadness enveloped them.
Meanwhile, on earth, the commander of Base 88 was very worried. He had been waiting for a signal from Faiza 7 and had sent messages to every space station with no result.
All interplanetary transmission-posts were alerted. No information had been received on Alym and Ryad. Finally, the astronauts’ syndicate had to make a decision. With the standard investigation complete, the men were declared lost.
Their families were informed by the services’ psychologist on the base. On Earth, Ryad and Alym were now considered dead.
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
Dr. Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs at tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.