“That was his war. Yes, it was a real war. His father, too, had had his war. And he had gone to it singing ‘The Marseillaise.’ Like him. And before him, his father’s father, and thus numerous generations caught in the often tragic snares of history.” These are the ruminations of Maïssa Bey’s unnamed female protagonist in her novella Do You Hear in the Mountains… as she rides a train somewhere in southern France. Originally published in 2002, the novella is a work of autofiction that explores Bey’s relationship to the Algerian War of Independence, during which her father was killed. The brief chance encounter of three strangers on a train begins a conversation that not only addresses the “often tragic snares of history,” as Bey’s protagonist writes, but also implicitly questions the process through which history gets recorded. The book serves as a porte-parole for a multiplicity of voices whose traumas have been silenced, in an excavation of untold pasts that bears the mark of a personal project.
Through truncated conversation, Bey’s characters slowly come to realize they represent different facets of a shared violent past.
“And there! We’ve come full circle! A pied-noir’s grand-daughter, a veteran, a fellaga’s daughter. It’s almost unreal. Really, who could have imagined such a scene? It looks like a television studio, gathered for a show by journalists in search of truth, hoping to lift the veil to shed light on ‘France’s painful past.’ All that’s missing is a harki. And especially, to emphasize this situation’s absurdity and strangeness, they should not neglect to introduce her not only as a fellaga’s daughter, but as herself obliged to flee her country to escape the fundamentalist madness.”
(The translator, Erin Lamm, provides notes that help the reader understand the terms that are left untranslated: a pied-noir, she explains, refers to an Algerian of French descent who supported French rule; fellaga is a derogatory term for an Algerian resistance fighter; and harki is the term used to describe members of the Algerian population who collaborated with the French army throughout the Algerian War of Independence.)
The veteran in the train car extracts the unnamed protagonist’s story from her semi-forcibly in an attempt to draw connections and make peace with his own participation in the French-Algerian conflict. Despite his attempts to “practice the culture of silence,” especially in relationship to his complicity in the war, his story also eventually comes to light. Through his revelation, the protagonist learns just how interconnected their histories are and she is left with both clarity and horror.
The protagonist’s feminist critique of violence is searing. Having fled Algeria’s widespread violence due to the Algerian Civil War that lasted from 1991 to 2002, an event that is occurring contemporaneously with the story, she meditates on her ironic refugee status in France: “Still, in this country, there are men. In every country, there are men. It is they who make it into a homeland. Who make it into hell. Or a country that’s nice to live in.” She relegates war and the project of nation to a masculine space and reflects on the patriotic tropes that serve as excuses for otherwise inexcusable actions.
Bey’s novella has just been published in the US alongside a collection of her short stories, Under the Jasmine at Night, in a single volume titled Do You Hear in the Mountains… and Other Stories. The book is part of a collection of Caribbean and African literature translated from the French and edited by University of Virginia Press as part of its CARAF Books series.
The short stories included in the volume examine the intersection of femininity and Franco-Algerian identity from a host of perspectives. It has been nearly two centuries since the French invaded Algiers in 1830 and began the process of establishing a 132-year imperial rule over their North African neighbors. It has also been over 50 years since representatives from both the French and Algerian governments signed the Évian Accords establishing the full independence of the Algerian nation. However, the legacy of French-Algerian relations remains murky and politicians, regardless of “side” or “position,” are reluctant to talk about decades of conflict and cultural exchange.
Bey’s stories address the manner in which these cultures have become mutually imprinted on one another. They take up the lived realities of immigrants who live in France, of Algerians who aim to negotiate the lessons of colonial history and subsequent independence, and of individuals who inhabit a space somewhere in between. From start to finish, the stories delve into the complexities of everything from love and domestic violence, to marriages affected by threats of repudiation and the corporeality of motherhood. They retain their gendered critiques as they explore a young girl’s first encounter with patriarchy, the role of rape in warfare, and the need to find spaces of sisterhood. Bey asks universal questions about the construct of race in discourses of immigration and about the cyclical nature of war. Her characters highlight our human need to connect with the past and to dream about the future. In doing so, each story accomplishes the feat of being grounded in a specific cultural reality and milieu while appealing to a broad audience.
The story titled “NOWHYBECAUSE” is a particularly compelling example of such an endeavor. It combines the innocence of its young, female protagonist with her curiosities about the world around her to reveal the limitations of growing up a girl in Bey’s Algeria:
Concrete examples, sentences to complete, according to social, moral, and cultural realities:
“Given that you are a girl…”
“The fact that you’re not married yet…”
“Seeing as he is a good catch…”
Let’s go back to childhood.
“So, can I go play downstairs with my girlfriend?”
(Pointing to my brother) “Why him and not me?”
“Because. You can’t. That’s how it is.”
The narrator reduces her relationship with her parents to this exchange of phrases and describes the slow realization that her brother did not face the same nowhybecause in his day-to-day. She also describes for the reader the process through which she learned to tell half-truths or to manipulate information to avoid the nowhybecauses. In a few short pages, Bey captures the reality of disparate gender realities and neatly times them to the “subordinating conjunction” her narrator disdains: because.
Lamm’s translation is beautifully rendered. The contents of the novella and the subsequent short stories may be sobering, but they provide a host of essential queries for the individual who enjoys a philosophically charged read. The edition is made all the more pleasant by its afterword, authored by Alison Rice, from the University of Notre Dame, who puts both Maïssa Bey and her writing into context for the non-specialist who wants to better understand Bey’s literary journey.
© Jocelyn Frelier. All rights reserved.