Assia Djebar is a fiction writer, filmmaker, professor — currently at NYU — and a regular contender for the Nobel Prize in literature. She is known in the US for her novel So Vast the Prison and the story collection Women of Algiers in Their Apartment. Another collection, published in French as Oran, langue morte, recently appeared from Seven Stories Press with the title The Tongue's Blood Does Not Run Dry.
For me, though, Djebar’s memoir Algerian White is a better book than any of these: more subtle, more artful, and finally more moving. Returning to Algerian White reminded me of the plaintive question posed at last year’s PEN World Voices Festival: Is Nonfiction Literature? (and if it is, why doesn’t it get more respect?).
Algerian White was written as a tribute to three men. Each was a friend of the author. Each was a writer himself, in addition to his regular profession. All three were killed in the space of less than a year, and the stories of each of their deaths are at the emotional heart of the book.
M’Hamed Boukhobza, a sociologist, worked late one night on a report for a meeting the next day. In the morning, three men rushed into his apartment, tied up his daughter, and left her to listen in another room while they tortured M’Hamed to death. She found him with his chest cut open, but although she was a medical student she could not save him.
Mahfoud Boucebi, a psychiatrist, arrived at his clinic one day to find the driveway blocked. Two men forced their way into his car and stabbed him in the chest and abdomen. He died at the hospital during surgery.
Abdelkader Alloula, a dramatist, was warned that a group had targeted him for murder. He did not tell his wife, mother, or sisters, and he did not change the date of a lecture he was scheduled to give. On the day of the lecture, he was shot twice at the bottom of his staircase. He lingered for several days in a coma, then died.
“All I do in these pages,” writes Djebar, “is spend time with a few friends.” But in remembering them she also reflects on the many other Algerian writers who have died before their time, and on the painful history of modern Algeria.
Some of the writers mentioned (there are nineteen in all, listed in the back of the book) were killed by the French in the struggle for independence. Others were assassinated by religious or political extremists, or — as in the case of the gay poet Jean Sénac — by parties unknown: “a one-night stand, a robber, or perhaps a police spy.” Some died in other ways: Albert Camus in a car crash, and Frantz Fanon from leukemia.
However they died, each of these writers disappeared into what Djebar pictures as the “Algerian white.” Like Melville in Moby-Dick, she plays a series of sinister variations on the meaning of whiteness: the whiteness of death notices and of targets, “the white of dust, of sunless light, of dilution…” The artist Kandinsky, she writes, believed that “White acts on our soul like absolute silence.”
Djebar is given to “fine writing,” and her memory of her lost friends is sometimes painfully vague or indirect. She describes them as images swaying on the horizon, “in the midst of a meadow or in a sharp ray of sunlight.” Her memory of Mahfoud turns into something more like the author’s memory of herself dancing with Mahfoud, and her pride in her own abandon. Often, though, she describes moments — like a glimpse of Kader, the actor, leaping across the stage in a production of Diary of a Madman — that for a short time bring them back to life. And always, she conveys the continuing and ever-changing pain of their absence.