The first English translation of this 1991 winner of the French Prix Mediterranée, whose author was assassinated in 1993 by Islamic extremists in Algeria, follows publication of Djaout’s remarkable The Last Summer of Reason (2001) and further shows the loss literature has sustained.
Djaout’s claustrophobic, at times Kafkaesque tale begins with the aging Menouar, a simple former shepherd and veteran of the Algerian resistance, coping with the summer heat in a suburb of the coastal city where he now lives. A busybody, he has noticed lights at night in a house he’d believed to be empty; these turn out to be evidence of the labor of Mahfoudh, an inventor from the city using the house as a quiet studio for finishing his work on a revolutionary loom design. When Mahfoudh tries to apply for a patent at the town office, he encounters such hostility from the bureaucrats, who have never dealt with a patent application before, that he decides to pursue matters back in the city. There, he encounters further resistance when he applies for a passport to attend an inventor’s fair in Germany, attracting police suspicion because he had once been arrested—a decade before, at a student demonstration. Meanwhile, his studio has come under surveillance by a vigilante veterans’ group that includes Menouar. For an inscrutable reason, however, Mahfoudh receives his passport, and, when he travels to the fair, a prize for his invention. Although he has to endure an almost surreal set of hurdles just to get his loom model back into Algeria, he is proclaimed a local and national hero—though his turnabout has lethal consequences for the unsuspecting Menouar.
No one will miss the message here, but Djaout has also given us a story as steeped in the beauty of North Africa as in the darkness threatening those who call it home.