Book Reviews of Translations
by Marjolijn de Jager, Ph.D.

Paris Noir

Paris Noir by Jean-Bernard Puay,
In paris noir, Auélien Masson (Ed.)
Published by Akashic Books,
New York, NY 10009: 2008

"The dank and sweaty crime scenes in Paris Noir (Akashic, paper, $15.95) testify to the fact that the French invented "noir."  Among the jarring images in this story collection (astutely edited by Aurélien Masson and translated by David Ball, Nichole Ball, Carol Cosman and Marjolijn de Jager), Didier Daeninckx's murky view of the after-hours scene in Porte Saint-Denis and Marc Villard's gritty look at the sex trade in Les Halles are correctives to all those persistent romantic fantasies about the city."
New York Times Book Review, Sunday November 16, 2008

The Amputated Memory

The Amputated Memory by Werewere Liking;
Original title: La Mémoire Amputée
The Feminist Press, New York, New York: 2007
Translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager

After reading the last paragraph of Werewere Liking's latest novel, I closed the cover and exclaimed, "Well!"  That's not the most sophisticated response, but a more appropriate one for a tale that is, in a word, astonishing: visceral and lyrical, impudent and literate, straightforward but effortlessly and endlessly metaphorical.  Liking is the multifaceted Cameroonian artist who paints, dances and sings as well as writes; with her fifth book, she synthesizes all those talents to craft a manifesto of African feminism that is likable, a rare quality for such an ambitious work. 

Memory is a mostly linear narrative that shuttles freely between past and present, prose and Greek chorus-style poetry, story and soliloquy, always feeling much more buoyant than ambitious.   This is because Liking centers the story and all its elements around the character of Halla Njokè, a young but precocious villager trying to define a voice and destiny in post-colonial Cameroon in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  Halla is first a representation of Liking herself, and Memory is thus Liking's own coming-of-age tale, which includes epiphanies (facilitated mostly by women in her extended family) about sex, spirituality, power and politics.  But as the title suggests, Memory aims to be much more inclusive.  In gathering together her own experiences, Halla is stitching together a great quilt for all the women of Africa whose personal histories have gone unrelated and unremembered for too long.  This book is Liking's passionate but very studied attempt to liberate from oblivion what she calls the continent's chronically "suppressed memory" of its people, women in particular.

And liberating it is.  For all its serious themes, this novel is a lot of fun; its tone is a kind of fantastic realism that recalls Candide and other archetypal tales about a seeker who encounters one strange circumstance after another.  At various points Halla finds herself a housemaid, a mother, a Jehovah's Witness minister and an underage nightclub singer who hardly knows what a nightclub is.  Yet the book is not about the randomness of life, but about Halla's growing realization that many aspects of her life are fixed, and why she must change them for her own benefit.  That includes resolving a larger cultural struggle between old customs and new, which surfaces most painfully when Halla understands her beloved father is mostly interested in marrying her off to the highest bidder.  Pondering when or if she will forge her own path, Halla suddenly and somewhat angrily turns her gaze outward.  "How many lives collide with this same question and never find an answer?..."  Liking writes.  Placating you to stay there and submit, without daring to envision anything else at all.  And you scrape along in melancholy for the rest of your life.  You, for instance, you who are reading me at this very moment, can you truly declare that you are where you wanted to be all along?"

Touché.  But for all the vexing questions asked - about the lot of African women, about the social and political turbulence that follow so-called independence in Cameroon - neither Liking nor her protagonist ever lose their mettle or their wonder at what is possible.  Halla's forbearance in the face of chaos and deception is heroic, but she is only one of several heroines illuminated here.  In carefully assembling Africa's severed memories, Liking has truly written herself - and countless other sisters - into existence.

Erin Aubry Kaplan, for MS Magazine, Winter, 2008

Children of the New World:
A Novel of the Algerian War

Children of the New World: A Novel of the Algerian War, by Assia Djebar
The Feminist Press at CUNY
New York, New York: 2005
Original title: Les Enfants du nouveau monde.)

"Children of the New World," the third novel by the Algerian writer Assia Djebar, was published in France in 1962, but Marjolijn de Jager's lovely translation is its first appearance in English.  Following several inter-related inhabitants of an Algerian town called Blida on a day in May 1956, in the second year of the Algerian war for independence, the narrative begins with the death of an old woman in the courtyard of her house, killed by a falling bomb fragment, and ends with the insurgents in the mountains.  Other characters, who encounter one another in the center of town, the place d' armes, suggest the variety of its populace: there are traditional women and emancipated ones, religious and secular men, intellectuals and shopkeepers, French and Algerian supporters and opponents of independence.  None are simple people: the French police chief is tired of the war and counts the years until he can go home; the Algerian policeman hates to torture suspected partisans; the least sympathetic character, an Algerian informer, is a young woman.  Women occupy a lot of space in the novel, with unpredictable complications.  A veiled woman proves braver than a westernized one, while a young radical treats a woman even more cruelly than a hyper-religious shop assistant does.  Djebar's point of view is feminist and anti-colonial, but her novel is no propaganda piece.  Even as she fervently supports Algerian independence, she makes it clear that in the new world opening up before them the people of Blida won't necessarily live happily ever after.

- New York Times Book Review, 3/5/06

Algerian White

Algerian White, by Assia Djebar.
Co-translator: David Kelley
Seven Stories Press, New York, New York: 2001.
Original title: Le Blanc de l'Algérie.

Translated by Marjolijn de Jager & David Kelley "A hymn to friendship and the enduring power of language, [Algerian White] is also a requiem for a nation's unfinished literature" - New York Times "Assia Djebar...has given weeping its words and longing its lyrics" - World Literature Today Weaving a tapestry of the epic and bloody ongoing struggle in Algeria between Islamic fundamentalism and the post-colonial civil society, Djebar describes with unerring accuracy and a ghostly presence the lives and deaths of those writers and intellectuals whose contributions were cut short.

A Tapestry Of The Algerian Struggle Between Islamic Fundamentalism And Post-Colonialism; Many Algerian writers and intellectuals have died tragically and violently since the 1956 struggle for independence. They include three of Djebar's beloved friends: Mahfoud Boucebi, a psychiatrist; M'Hamad Boukhobza, a sociologist; and Abdelkader Allouda, a dramatist; as well as Albert Camus. In Algerian White, Dejbar finds a way to meld the personal and the political by describing in intimate detail the final days and hours of these and other Algerian men and women, many of whom were murdered merely because they were teachers, or writers, or students. Yet for Djebar, they cannot be silenced. They continue to tell stories, smile and endure through her defiant pen. Both fiction and memoir, Algerian White describes with unerring accuracy the lives and deaths of those whose contributions were cut short, and then probes even deeper into the meaning of friendship through imagined conversations and ghostly visitations.

- Review from...

The Last Summer of Reason & The Watchers

The Last Summer of Reason (Paperback), by Tahar Djaout
Republished by Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press,
Lincoln and London: 2007

The Watchers, by Tahar Djaout.
Ruminator Books, St. Paul, Minnesota: 2002.
Original title: Les Vigiles.

This review begins with a confession. When I first saw a copy of The Last Summer of Reason while browsing in a bookstore off Harvard Square, it wasn’t Tahar Djaout’s name that caught my eye, but the name of Wole Soyinka, who supplied the introduction to this short novel. Intrigued as to whom Soyinka, Nigeria’s 1986 Nobel laureate in literature, might take the time to introduce, I quickly discovered a writer who merited such attention. Born in Algeria, Djaout was assassinated in 1993, an event attributed to members of the Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist group that interpreted Djaout’s writings as a threat to their interests and those of other Muslims. Djaout had been a novelist, poet, and journalist, publishing eleven books total by the time of his death at the age of 39. He received the Prix Mèditerranèe for his novel The Watchers (Les Vigiles), originally published in 1991. All told, a life and promising career in literature cut short for political reasons, a situation no doubt familiar to Soyinka who has similarly dodged the capricious violence of postcolonial Nigerian politics. But what is his writing like, beyond these tragic circumstances?

Recently released in paperback, The Last Summer of Reason was found as an unedited manuscript among Djaout’s belongings after his death. Soyinka describes it as a “posthumous allegory . . . beamed at the complacent conscience of the world,” and it certainly does contain a political purpose, in many ways appearing as a prophesy of Djaout’s own fate. The story is a simple one: Boualem Yekker, the story’s central protagonist, is a bookstore owner in an unnamed coastal town in a country meant to approximate an imagined Algeria of the near future. The state is fundamentalist in orientation, led by a group known as the Vigilant Brothers. Given this context, Boualem is consequently forced to watch his every move, for fear of receiving some form of punishment or a violent end at the hands of this intolerant regime. Djaout successfully creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, with the city feeling simultaneously empty and ready to explode in violence. However, despite this sense of menace on each page, not much happens. Djaout describes Boualem’s day-to-day life, takes us through his dreams and memories, and leaves us in the end with the immensity of an uncertain future. We read of a final vacation with his family (the “last summer” of the title), his friend Ali Elbouliga, his unconventional political opinions, a vivid nightmare involving his son. An ironic process of character development therefore occurs – the more he loses, the fuller his character becomes – with Boualem’s life being one of increasing isolation, where his children, family, and even his books gradually fail him. By the end of the novel, he, like the reader, is left hollowed out.

Taken as a whole then, The Last Summer of Reason resembles other dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The individual versus the state provides the primary dramatic tension. There is also an affinity with Camus’ The Stranger, with its Algerian locale, its concise prose style, and its modern, existential angst. However, Djaout’s novel falls short in embodying a philosophical perspective in the same way that Camus’ does. There is a set of politics to be sure, with a clear critique against the oppressive nature of fundamentalism towards individual freedom. However, this message – often dogmatically pursued within the text – comes off as a conventional political stance rather than a deeper, philosophical one. The slightness of the story therefore, unfortunately, serves to undermine any larger achievement. Given the unfinished nature of the manuscript, one is left to wonder what it might have become had Djaout been able to finish it.

The Watchers provides something of an answer. Reading this novel after The Last Summer of Reason, one is gripped with a fuller sense of Djaout’s ability with allegory as well as his capacity to draw a broader social and historical panorama. This expansiveness is to some extent achieved by doubling up. This novel contains two characters: Menouar Ziada, a veteran of an (again) unnamed country’s revolutionary movement, and Mahfoudh Lemdjad, an aspiring – and potentially seditious – inventor whom Menouar is assigned to watch over. Mahfoudh has designed a loom – symbolism intended – and goes through a process of applying for a patent and then for a passport to present his invention at a fair in Heidelberg. These situations are (no surprise) Kafkaesque with their combination of surface absurdity and hidden threat. If Mahfoudh finds himself confronted with the suspicion and inertia of the state, Menouar in parallel finds himself questioning the legacy of his past participation in that state’s revolution and his current role as one of its supposed defenders. Each experiences periods of introspection, with Djaout supplying dialogue pregnant with political import. Menouar: “Does having liberated the nation give one the right to be so heavy a burden on it, to confiscate its riches as well as its future?” Mahfoudh: “Aren’t we running the risk of being carried back centuries in time and losing the values that people have created with their sweat and blood, such as democracy, sexual equality, individual freedom, freedom of expression, and religious freedom?” Djaout’s central theme of the individual versus the state again surfaces.

Menouar and Mahfoudh appear destined to meet; although, without foreclosing the ending, Djaout leaves a surprise. The novel finishes by underscoring the dangers of both resisting and collaborating with the state. In this sense, Djaout offers a striking allegory regarding the complex legacy of postcolonial Algeria, with its origins in a violent anti-colonial revolution and its contemporary struggles between secular and religious political parties. The individual, caught in these changing, fluid social conditions, is forced to decide between the risk of affiliation versus the risk of individual desire. The past, present, or future: none offers comfort or certainty in this matter.

The transparency of politics within Djaout’s fiction may, for some readers, become tedious. As briefly hinted at above, his characters do not often speak about the mundane, only the political or metaphysical. The sense that they are intended to express Djaout’s own opinions is consequently pervasive, with their development as fully achieved persona feeling limited. However, unlike 1984, The Last Summer of Reason does not take place in a distant future but appears as an expression of what is currently happening or, at the least, what might happen in the very near future. Djaout’s death all but confirms this. In leaving these books, one is forced to consider this entanglement between fact and fiction, to ponder what Djaout might have accomplished. By leaving these books, Djaout suggests a path of clear ambition and, in all likelihood, eventual importance.

- Christopher J. Lee


The Last Summer of Reason

The Last Summer of Reason (Paperback), by Tahar Djaout
Republished by Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press,
Lincoln and London: 2007

Buy this book
One of the great blind spots of American intellectual life has been its failure to recognize and support Arab intellectuals living under various forms of totalitarianism. Algerian novelist, poet, and journalist Tahar Djaout, assassinated in 1993, is a case in point. Discovered among his papers following his death, The Last Summer of Reason, his first work translated into English, depicts the collapsing world of Boualem Yekker, a bookseller. Though Boualem realizes that "others had created the books he could not create," he remains the hero of this bittersweet hymn of resistance, dedicated to the powers of memory and words that, "put end to end, bring doubt and change." 

  - Review by ...

Tahar Djaout's stunning "The Last Summer of Reason" opens with a
five-page "sermon" that sounds more like a threat [...]  Djaout's prose
is immediate, almost journalistic, and extremely well served by
Marjolijn de Jager's nimble translation from the original French.

  - The Denver Post, November 11, 2001

The Watchers

The Watchers, by Tahar Djaout.
Ruminator Books, St. Paul, Minnesota: 2002.
Original title: Les Vigiles.

Important now more than ever.
The Algerian author Tahar Djaout was assasinated by Islamic terrorists in 1993 for what was claimed to be "the effects of his fearsome pen". During his short life, Djaout was regarded as one of Algeria's best and most promising writers.
In a small town in Algeria, is an old war veteran Menouar Ziada who is haunted by memories of past wars and is only too happy living most of his life just outside his home, chatting with passersby. One day Ziada notices what he thinks are some mysterious goings-on in a house down the street. Ziada is bothered enough with suspicion about this that he warns the locals that "we should expect a great disaster in our city sometime soon."

Ziada's focus of supsicion turns out to be some harmless tinkering by an inventor Mahfoudh Lemdjad. Lemdjad has developed a new kind of loom and is looking to patent it and show the tool in the world fair. The invention however, is not well received at the local government offices. Lemdjad is told off summarily by a bureaucrat: "Surely you know that in our sacred religion the words creation and invention are sometimes condemned because they are perceived as heresy." The obstacles that Lemdjad has to face just to get the most basic of tasks done portray only all too realistically the corruptions of a sick society. When Lemdjad finally does it all and even "creates a sensation at the Inventors' fair in Heidelberg", he finds his fortunes reversed.

Unfortunately so does Menouar Ziada.

To reveal more would be giving too much of the plot away. Djaout weaves a wonderful tale with plenty of atmosphere and a slight undercurrent of tension. The language is very rich and evocative. I found though that much of the slim novel required careful reading because it had too many long sentences. Despite this minor drawback, The Watchers is wonderful storytelling.

The story, written more than ten years ago, is especially relevant in these times when even our most basic of human rights are under threat of being compromised. Djaout's voice continues to speak loud and clear even after he has been silenced-a triumph of the pen over the sword.

- Reviewed at, October 14, 2002

Can anyone live independent of country?
"The Watchers" follows two African villagers: an inventor adulated for genius and made public hero; and a resistance fighter admonished for no good reason and made scapegoat. In 207 pages, this novel packs a political punch, warning readers about the consequences of a country that puts national security over civil liberties. The results are chilling and deadly.

The author, in fact, was killed for his art in 1993. His death at age 39 was attributed to the Islamic Salvation Front. One attacker claimed the murder was because Tahar Djaout "wielded a fearsome pen." Djaout produced eleven books of poetry and fiction, including, "The Last Summer of Reason," which won France’s prestigious Prix Mediterranee in 1991.

What "The Watchers" does well is defend creativity in a climate of suspicion. The struggle is personified through the character of Mahfoudh, a retired engineer who invents a loom, marrying both tradition and technical advancement. His achievement raises the eyebrows of local magistrates. His attempts to attain a patent, a passport and mail a package are constantly delayed or denied. Most compelling is when Mahfoudh’s faces border security (sound familiar?); we feel, see and smell Mahfoudh’s dejection and humiliation.

The novel is less successful in its depiction of Menouar, a spineless veteran turned resistance fighter. Menouar gets trapped like a bug no matter where he turns, whether avoiding an occupying army at his home village, joining a resistance movement or escaping bureaucracy. Menouar’s woes begin at full volume; then has no where to climax. His character works best on a symbolic level, of one seduced by the machinations of those in power, where tiny stars "spoil the majesty of one’s gaze." (Look closely at the dustjacket; the eye reveals a faint Algerian flag with star and cycle.)

Well-timed, powerful but flawed, "The Watchers" is a hard-won cautionary tale when the pendulum swings too far in favor of nationalism, where "tiny stars fall into the eyes of the careless."

- David Flood


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