TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Spring (Printemps), which was published by Grasset in April 2014, is set in Algiers between early 2011 and 2013. Teldj, a former 400m hurdles Olympic medalist, is gay, in her thirties, and teaches at the University of Algiers. As Teldj watches the events of the Arab Spring unfold, she exhumes memories from her personal past, as well as her country’s recent history, most notably the Civil War, which claimed hundreds of thousands of victims during the 1990s.
Algiers. An ordinary day during that sluggish, sweltering month of August in 2011. The bedroom is aired by a ceiling fan with gigantic, pale greenish blades. A scorching day. A clammy night. The fan is quaint, a relic from the colonial era (Teldj stubbornly refused to replace it with a modern air conditioner, explaining to her friends that “this ceiling fan is part of our national heritage and our colonial history! Are you stupid or what?”) and only manages to slightly cool the room, and only when the sunset varnished the bedroom walls with that specific but undefinable color. A very spacious room. The bed is draped with saffron-colored sheets brought back from Shanghai. Directly opposite is a giant mirror, also a colonial relic, whose reflection allows Teldj to admire an enlarged image of her elongated body—five-foot-nine—which helped her become Algeria’s leading athlete in the 400-meter hurdles. She’s naked and her vaginal crease is now in plain sight, topped by a bushy tuft of jet black hair, “Just an average vagina that pisses on a daily basis and bleeds once a month, whereas men get to poke their penises around and pick their noses to the end of time. This is what women use when they flirt and seduce, whereas it’s nothing but an anatomical cleft, a fistula, a stormy red eye that nonetheless still rules the world! A kind of fleshy isosceles triangle, a slightly comical fissure. A tear. Crimson. As for penises,” she said to herself, “those limp, sputtering hoses that inflate and deflate, those Cyclopean things . . .” Teldj is a very beautiful brunette and she starts thinking about May, one of the Chinese students in her Arabic grammar course, who very quickly became her lover when Teldj spent some time in Shanghai. May was also very beautiful. Should she start masturbating? She hesitated. She could hear loud, polyglot yelling from the balcony across from her, streaming in through the kitchen, where she’d left the windows open to take advantage of the night breeze, which sent a cool flow through the flat. It was Thursday, August 17, 2011, and a boozy evening was in full swing over at the neighbors’.
Thus, she hesitated to start masturb . . . (Still, no reason why she shouldn’t praise masturbation!) Teldj was quickly overcome by desire and was drenched in her own juices, which were flooding her nether regions with that sticky substance whose name she didn’t even know; she resented her own sensuality, her obsession with that! To be perennially consumed by her lust, each and every day . . . Was she a nymphomaniac? She suddenly started thinking about Malika, her aunt . . . She decided to call May in Shanghai, but it would be useless! May either wouldn’t, or wouldn’t be able, to answer. She thought about May a lot. Back and forth. Her frisky hand started rummaging around her genitals. May was a puckish girl. She had gone all out to seduce Teldj with her skimpy, low-cut dresses, her daring, suggestive gestures, her cheeky teasing; but above all, Teldj had been seduced by May’s exuberance and those bursts of laughter, which at first had thrilled her, then made her fall head over heels. Back and forth . . . The voices streaming in through the kitchen had abruptly stopped. It was midnight. Syncopated images of her first night with May. Teldj remembered—when May had arrived at her studio in Shanghai where she’d been anxiously waiting for her, feeling almost feverish—that the first time was always almost as painful as exciting and Teldj had almost felt as though she’d already climaxed. She still nursed memories of May’s widely spread legs, her scalding hot labia, the shape of her hyster (thus hysterical). When May had drawn near to her in the penumbra, a nervous little laugh had pealed out of her mouth, which she’d tried to muffle as though she too had been afraid of what was about to happen between them despite the violent desire that had taken hold of them. Had that been during the monsoon? (which is derived from the Arabic for “season”). In any case, it had been pouring down that day. The young Chinese student had reacted more rapidly than her professor by keeping calm and taking the lead. Their bodies locked. Biting. Scratching. Despite the violence of her movements, May had kept smiling tenderly, but Teldj knew that her smile concealed an enigma; May belonged to an entirely different civilization, an entirely different way of life, an entirely different way of being and transcending reality. A sophisticated culture that focused on what was left unsaid—or the strict essential that was said—a finesse that is often mocked and despised by the white man, who is so convinced of his superiority over the other races. Teldj mumbled to herself, “All I need to do is read the opinion pages in their newspapers: those sarcastic, paternalistic, racist tones they employ, proof of how Western people are still afraid of the Yellow Peril—that ghost haunting their collective subconscious!—despite the progress they’ve made in the recent past. Their inclination to keep giving China—a political, economic, but above all cultural superpower—lessons whenever they can.” Teldj had found all this distressing because she loved China to the point of madness. She had become biased. Fear and anguish had rooted themselves deeply in May, who was only twenty years old, whose limbs were simultaneously light and heavy, as well as very dense, as though swollen by her body’s passion, the thickness of the furniture and the shape of the hieroglyphs that covered the walls.
In reality, however, they were both submerged in doubt! Teldj’s body could go no further. Her desire suddenly evaporated. Her clitoris, rock-hard at the start, went limp. Thus her craving was more a fantasy than a reality. Fear began to tetanize her muscles. Teldj was overwhelmed by the memories of that bakery where that man . . . overwhelmed by the memories of the garden where her mother . . . She was buttressed against the wall of the classroom where Professeur Boucebsi . . . Now both women were drenched in sweat. May’s laughter no longer roared like it had when they’d first met on the banks of the Huangpu river. Teldj could clearly notice how the pupils of May’s gorgeous almond-shaped eyes had dilated and how her facial features had frozen, hardened, and grown somber, with the exception of her wild, beautiful eyes, which seemed a little dazed. May gently reached for Teldj’s hand. Made her stretch out on the bed. Climbed atop her both nimbly and awkwardly. Guided her hand toward her sex. Then she began shaking Teldj’s hand in a hellish back and forth motion, employing an almost mindless violence. May unleashed her fury like a typhoon that devastates everything in its path, as though wanting all that agitation and over-excitement to compensate for that fear that had infiltrated into Teldj—her lover who came from the other side of the world—and then solidified there. So the disease had infected May too! Perhaps it was because of the age difference between them . . . Teldj had contaminated her! Tedlj swallowed all the saliva in her mouth, which her distress had made acidic to the point that her tongue felt all chapped, her teeth all tartared and her gums all corroded. The taste reminded her of those mulberry leaves she and her childhood friends used to eat each time they climbed the summit of that hundred-year-old-tree in the big ancestral house of Mchounèche, up in the highlands of the Aurés mountains, at an altitude of 5,600 feet, where she had been born in the middle of winter (January 1, 1984) right in the midst of a terrible snowstorm. (This was why her parents had called her Teldj, Snow!); meanwhile Fatima, the family’s ancient, indeed, centenarian, irascible servant had appeared to them from above, at an odd angle, like some demonic being, her face all battered, her body all misshapen, especially when the sun sank back into the horizon . . . (This was the same woman who used to mock birds and hunt cats down mercilessly. The same woman who brought her into the world because the ambulance that belonged to the small clinic down in the valley had come too late. The same woman who got run over by a tram in Constantine one morning at dawn when she’d gone out to buy the doughnuts—still oozing oil and strung together with a string of esparto—that the family ate every day from the fat Tunisian vendor. The same woman . . . who’d never stopped ranting and raving and launching into memorable but always ineffectual fits of anger. Aunt Fatma never got anything out of those rants because all those mischievous little girls were already beyond her, already out of reach). This was her childhood, which had been fairly tranquil, but those happy scenes quickly became repetitive, haunting memories, which were both bright and opaque, sudden and violent. Ominous too. Deadly. Memories that had marked her life, influenced it and shaped it. Teldj was already thirty years old.
Teldj’s mouth was full of May’s saliva. May was kissing her over and over again and caressing her so brutally, it was as though she were tanning her skin like a piece of leather. Due to these lacerations, Teldj felt as if her body were blanketed in an icy dew while she convulsed under the effect of May’s long, sharp fingernails as they ran up and down her spine . . . May worked with her eyes closed, her mouth full of Mandarin words, which Teldj couldn’t understand (she’d just arrived in the country and had firmly decided to learn Mandarin, a language which had always fascinated her, if only because she was so charmed by those sumptuous, vivid logograms) that flowed out uninterruptedly. Their voices reverberated into every nook and cranny of the room. Teldj bit down on May’s lips a little cruelly. She felt the warmth of that liquid, its briny taste. She thought about an old Algerian lover of hers. About her feminine juices, her viscous wetness which nursed an unfathomable hatred and desire for revenge against men; a hate that consequently turned against women in the course of her transition to homosexuality. Men! May wanted to say something, but couldn’t manage it, since she only knew Mandarin and a little Arabic—which she’d just begun to learn—and she squarely refused to express that distraught intimacy occurring between an Algerian woman and a Chinese woman in English. Their words fell apart under the burden of that strained silence. In fact, Teldj no longer felt anything at all. She only pretended to. She only thought about Algeria. About her apartment in Algiers. About the bakery where . . . About her mother who . . . About her father that . . . About Professor Boucebsi whose . . . About Popov, her old trainer . . . At that moment, the memories of her native country crushed her under their weight. Her father. Her mother (her mother above all!). Her doctor. Her trainer. The murderer who. She let May carry on. Occasionally, she deliberately prolonged her silence and amplified it. Toned legs, wide hips, a svelte frame, her small, firm bust. As opposed to May’s frail, almost fragile body. As though it was immaterial, evanescent, elusive! May’s large open eyes tried to lock with hers in a pincer movement. All in vain! May said: “I love you” in Mandarin. Her voice was suffused with a sophisticated Asian eroticism, with all the libertinism and sensuality the world had to offer, even though May now knew her lover lay there impotent, having gone elsewhere. Teldj was absent. Frigid. Lifeless. May repeated the same words more passionately, but without any despair, “Wo ai ni! . . . I love you.”
From Printemps, © Rachid Boudjedra. Translation © 2014 by André Naffis-Sahely.