The great Algerian author Mohammed Dib was born 100 years ago today:
At least four French publications are celebrating the Dib centenary: There has been a reissue of Dib’s collection Formulaires, a co-edition of his book of photographs and memoirs of Tlemcen (Tlemcen or Places of Writing), a special section in the magazine Europe, and a special edition of Fassl that focuses on writing about Dib.
The novelist, poet, and short-story writer was born on July 21, 1920, in Tlemcen, in northwestern Algeria, to a struggling middle-class family. His father died when he was ten; five years later, at fifteen, he began writing poetry. He was only 18 when he started work as a teacher in the Moroccan border town, Oujda, but he returned to Tlemcen in 1945, at the end of WWII.
He worked various jobs: weaver, teacher, accountant, interpreter, and journalist and published his first novel, La grande maison, in 1952. The social-realist novel has echoes of Dib’s own childhood, focused on a boy of around ten whose father has died and whose mother struggles to support the family; the bright spot in the novel is a young Communist, Hamid Saraj.
The other books in Dib’s first trilogy — L’Incendie (1954) and Le Métier à Tisser (1957) — as well as his writings in Alger Républicain and Liberté, posed a threat to French settlers, who advocated for Dib’s expulsion from his country. In 1959, the French imperial administration forced Dib to leave Algeria.
Although he went first to Morocco, he settled in France, near his French in-laws; several authors pressed French authorities to allow him to stay. Dib was based there for the rest of his life, where he some 30 novels, volumes of poetry, short stories and tales for children, and also translated works from the Finnish.
Though he wrote in and across a variety of genres, Dib called himself a poet. His poetry collections included Ombre gardienne (Guardian Shadow), Formulaires (Forms), Omneros (Omneros), and L’Enfant Jazz (Jazz Boy). He also authored a filmscript and two plays.
The first of Dib’s works to appear in English was his novel Who Remembers The Sea, published by Three Continents Press in 1985; it’s currently out of print.
The second appeared in 2001, translated by C. Dickson, and has made more of a lasting impact in English. This collection of stories, The Savage Night, had been published in French in 1995, and they show many sides to Dib’s gift: realism, magic, Borgesian wit, psychological portraiture. Inhe title story, “The Savage Night,” a brother and a sister — Nédim and Beyhana — are going somewhere. Their relationship is so intimate that, at times, they seem to become each other. Time moves relentlessly and frighteningly forward as they journey through the city. Slowly, the reader realizes they are on their way to leave a bomb in a public place.
In 1994, he received the Francophone Grand Prix, the highest literary prize awarded by the Académie Française.
Dib’s next work to appear in English was his novel-in-verse, L.A. Trip; indeed, Dib had made his own L.A. trip — he was a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles in the late 1970s. The book was translated by Paul Vangelisti and published by Green Integer in 2003, the year Dib died at his home outside Paris. He was 82.
Select photos from Tlemcen or Places of Writing:
Read translations online
A few excerpts from LA Trip, tr. Paul Vangelisti
On Banipal, “The Companion” tr. James Kirkup
“Bloodred Dew,” on Words Without Borders, tr. C. Dickson.
A few of Dib’s poems, translated by Pierre Joris, are on Joris’s blog
15 more on PoemHunter, translators various
The Savage Night, tr. C Dickson
L.A. Trip,tr. Paul Vangelisti
At the Café and The Talisman, tr. C. Dickson
An Algerian Childhood: A Collection of Autobiographical Narratives
Tlemcen or Places of Writing, tr. Guy Bennett.
Video of Dib discussing Who Remembers the Sea: