A chaotic and perilous day in the life of a North African village is depicted in this taut 1962 novel, written in French by the Algerian-born author (So Vast a Prison, 1999, etc.) and filmmaker.
The year is 1956, and the Algerian Revolution against French imperialism is in full swing. In nine compact chapters, each named for and featuring a single character, Djebar shows the mountainside town of Blida in (often violent) transition from a late-feudal patriarchal culture into an inchoate egalitarian society in which women seek to forsake traditional roles long imposed on them and join their brothers, husbands and lovers in casting off the shackles of colonialism. Djebar is an impassioned advocate of Algerian and female liberation, and this much-admired book (previously untranslated into English) does not entirely avoid partisan discursiveness. But she has found a perfect metaphor for the war’s horrors: an aged grandmother who refused to leave her home, killed by shrapnel in her courtyard. And her message is both delivered and lived by several vividly imagined characters. Foremost among them: stunningly beautiful Cherifa, who dares to shed the dull husband forced on her and choose a man she loves; guilt-ridden policeman Hakim, who shares his earnings with his grasping family, and his long-suffering wife Amna, exhausted by multiple childbearings; philosophy student Lila, resentful of her husband Ali’s “militant nationalism,” which separates him from her; treacherous Touma, who luxuriates in the “power” conferred by her status as a colonial informer—until she excites the wrath of her brother Tawfik, a fiery true believer; and many others. The result is a painstakingly braided tapestry that richly deserves its high reputation—as is explained in informative (and, unfortunately, tediously redundant) detail in scholar Clarissa Zimra’s otherwise worthy Afterword.
Djebar is reputed to be a leading Nobel Prize candidate. Reading this replete, stirring novel, one can understand why.