2020 Int’l Prize for Arabic Fiction to Abdelouahab Aissaoui’s ‘The Spartan Court’

Judges today announced the winner of the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction — Abdelouahab Aissaoui’s The Spartan Court, the first Algerian novel to win the prize — in a ceremony that took place entirely online:

This year’s Chair of Judges Muhsin Al-Musawi, made the announcement, which followed short video talks by himself; Yasir Suleiman, chair of the IPAF’s Board of Trustees; and prize administrator Fleur Montanaro.

Abdelouaheb Aissaoui is the author of three novels and a short-story collection. His second novel, Sierra de la Muerte (The Mountain of Death) won the Assia Djebar prize in 2015 for best novel in the Arabic language. He was also one of the IPAF’s Nadwa workshop participants in 2016.

There were a surprising four Algerian novels on this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction longlist and two on the shortlist. In his video statement, Al-Musawi particularly praised the six novels’ experimentalism.

In a prepared statement, Al-Musawi said that, “The Spartan Court stands out for its stylistic brilliance. It is polyphonic – with multiple voices telling the story. Readers gain a multi-layered insight into the historical occupation of Algeria and, from this, the conflicts of the entire Mediterranean region, with characters embodying different interests and intersecting visions. The novel invites the reader to gain a greater understanding of life under occupation and the different forms of resistance that grow against it. With its deep, historical narrative structure, the novel does not live in the past, but rather it challenges the reader to question present reality.”

The Spartan Court follows the interconnected lives of five characters in early nineteenth century Algiers: Dupond, a French journalist; Caviard, a former soldier in Napoleon’s army; Ibn Mayyar, who wants to make compromises; Hamma al-Sallaoui, who believes in revolution; and Doudja, a prostitute.

In a previous interview with Nadia Ghanem, Aissaoui said of the novel — set between 1815 and 1833 — that he thinks “that the actual period that sees the beginning of Algeria’s decline starts in August 1816, which is the time of Lord Exmouth’s campaign against Algeria, but I shifted the year to 1815, the year in which the famous Battle of Waterloo occurred, when Napoleon was defeated. This was the beginning of the transformation of one of the characters in the novel. As for the year 1833, it is the year during which the African Commission visited Algeria; at that time, a new ‘birth certificate’ was issued for it, giving it the name of African properties in Algeria.”

Here, in Raphael Cohen’s translation, which appears in a special booklet of excerpts of the six shortlisted novels:

Marseille, March 1833

In this world, my esteemed friend Dupond, God is the Devil, yet you still believe that all women are Mary Magdalene, every leader an epiphany of the Saviour.Your mind is so deluded that I feel sorry for you.Wake up, Dupond. Wake up, or go back to Marseille.

Your archfriend, Caviard

Twelve years after Napoleon’s death and three years since the fall of Algeria, those words still resound through my head. In not one letter did my old friend want to retract them.

Roaming the streets of Marseille, I sense that people have become oblivious to the turmoil of the past few years and that visit by the Dauphin. Ah, sorry, there is no Dauphin anymore, not since they revolted against him and he too became an exile, just a pale and fleeting shadow in feeble memory. In kingship, twenty minutes is much the same as twenty years; Louis XIX or Napoleon, pas de différence! Who, I wonder, still preserved the dreams of the madman who wanted to be crowned king of the world? His name had continued to stir in the memory of the people, but of them all, the most impassioned and inflamed by the mad leader’s life story was my friend Caviard. I liked to call him the fallen Saul, and he laughed when he heard it. He agreed with the merchants of Marseille that remaining in that Spartan city rising beyond the sea would benefit the French. Surely, merchants in Marseille did not only want it as a memorial to their past glories, but for other reasons. Money, as Saul would say, is a new god, and how many gods there are! Gods at sea and others on land.

Each of the six shortlisted authors will receive $10,000, with the winner receiving an additional $50,000. Last year’s winner, Hoda Barakat’s The Night Mail, is being translated by Marilyn Booth and is set to be published by Oneworld in September of this year.

Excerpts from each of the six shortlisted novels are available online.

Read more on and from the shortlisted authors:

Abdelouahab Aissaoui on Publishing Realities, Challenges, and Dreams in Algeria

Jabbour Douaihy on ‘The King of India’

Said Khatibi on the Entanglements of Story in Bosnia and Algeria

‘Firewood of Sarajevo’: Testimonies against Amnesia and for an Alternative History

New Fiction: An Excerpt from Alia Mamdouh’s IPAF-longlisted ‘The Tank’

The shortlisted authors’ novels already in English translation:

Jabbour Douaihy’s Autumn Equinox ,tr. Nay Hannawi, won the Arkansas Arabic Translation Award.

Douaihy’s June Rain was shortlisted for the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2008 and published in English, in Paula Haydar’s translation, in 2014.

Douaihy’s The American Neighborhood, also translated by Haydar, was longlisted for the IPAF in 2015.

Douaihy’s Printed in Beirut was, similarly, translated by Haydar.

Douaihy’s novel The Vagrant, shortlisted for the IPAF 2012, is not in English. However, a translation by Stephanie Dujols won the 2013 ‘Prix de la Jeune Litterature Arabe.’

Said Khatibi’s Forty Years Waiting for Isabelle was translated by “Emisia Creative.”

Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel was translated by Jonathan Wright.

Alia Mamdouh’s Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad was translated by Peter Theroux.

Mamdouh’s Mothballs was also translated by Theroux.

Mamdouh’s The Loved Ones was translated by Marilyn Booth