Moving Beyond the Examination of History

Perception of Algerian literature is dominated by the complex thematic backdrop of violence and the processing of traumatic experience. What are the reasons for this? In a piece to mark the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, Martina Sabra debates this issue

By Martina Sabra

The 50th anniversary of Algerian independence triggers mixed emotions among Algerian writers. Boualem Sansal, novelist and winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade, was 12 years old and still attending school on 5 July 1962. He remembers celebrating in the streets of Algiers with his friends, and not returning home for days afterwards.

But in the preceding weeks, following the ceasefire between France and the Algerian liberation front FLN, he had also witnessed the hounding of people known as "Harkis": Algerians who had worked for the French government or military – some of them against their will.

Boualem Sansal: "Our subject is violence, and we use violent language"

​​"You could see the road to the port of Algiers from our balcony," Boualem Sansal recalls. "Once I saw a horde of men attacking a young woman and her boyfriend. They accused them of working as interpreters for the French army. The attackers dragged the couple by their hair over the street, stabbed them with knives and beat them. There was blood everywhere. Then they shoved a stick up the young woman's bottom. She died as a result."

The war as a wound

Novelist Wassini Laredsch from Tlemcen was eight years old when the Algerian war ended. He also remembers unbridled celebrations with his siblings and waving homemade Algerian flags. But three years previously, he had to experience how his father was arrested by French soldiers and tortured to death. A brutal loss with repercussions for writer to this day.

"For me this war is a very large wound," says Laredsch, a lecturer in literature at the University of Algiers and the Sorbonne in Paris, in an interview with "Almost everything that I've written has in the end been an attempt to get over this pain," he says.

Flight to a virtual world, the world of literature, as a way of escaping war and torture: Algerian writer Maissa Bey

​​The writer Maissa Bey also lost her father in the battle for liberation. The family lived in a small town to the southwest of Algiers. Her father was one of the few local people to work as a teacher in colonial Algeria. He was arrested in front of his family after being denounced by someone. He was beaten to death during his interrogation at the police station.

"I was just six years old when my life was blighted by the concepts of war and torture," Maissa Bey remembers. "It all meant that I sought solace in a virtual world – the world of literature."

Literature as a manageable alternative to a reality etched by violence and chaos; writing as a way of overcoming personal and collective trauma: these are highly-evident features of post-independence Algerian literature. A tendency that has also been amplified the political context: For decades, French governments saw no reason to properly grapple with the horrors perpetrated during the Algerian war. The question of guilt – both on an individual and national level – was blanked out.

After the civil war, state-decreed amnesia

Under the one-party FLN regime until 1989, and later owing to state-decreed amnesia as a result of the amnesty laws of 1999 and 2005, censorship prevented the onset of any profound social and political debate over the collective experience of violence.

Where politics failed, Algerian literature stepped in – for example with the work of poet Rachid Boudjedra, who from the 1970s consistently fathomed the deep psychological effects of the violence.

Giving a voice to victims of Algeria's "Black Decade" of civil war: Assia Djebar winner of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade and member of the Académie française

​​Assia Djebar's attempts to tackle the issue of the collective experience of violence were initially sporadic, but later, following the murder of numerous intellectuals in the 1990s, she produced a number of novels denouncing the atrocities of the civil war, including her acclaimed poetic requiem "Algerian White".

In their novels and short stories, many Algerian writers chose to employ techniques of satirical alienation and the grotesque as a way of being able to relate things that were actually unportrayable – such as the novelist Wassini Laredsch in his work "Protector of the Shadows: Don Quixote in Algiers" (published in 1996).

Another prime example of a literary approach to coping with trauma is the novel "Entendez-vous dans les montagnes", published in France in 2001. In the novel, author Maissa Bey describes a chance encounter between the daughter of an Algerian who has been tortured to death and a former French soldier who had been stationed in Algiers. In the course of the conversation the Algerian woman realises that her French counterpart was directly involved in the murder of her father.

Although the man is of pensionable age, he also appears to suspect something. But neither of them is willing or able to talk openly about the facts let alone express their emotions. The book is a very human appeal to the French and the Algerians to enter into a dialogue about the past.

Polyphony, distorted perspectives, intertextual references

While to this day, those in power in Algeria obstruct an honest, uncensored processing of the past, Algerian literature repeatedly tries to create a space where collective hurt and the experience of violence can be played out. This is a positive thing.

But there are also disadvantages to the domineering presence of complex thematic backdrop of violence and trauma: it distorts appreciation of other qualities offered by Algerian literature – for example its fascinating, unusual richness of form. As early as 1956, Kateb Yacine, one of the founders of modern Algerian literature, set out his legendary novel "Nedjma" as a complex tale of deliberate confusion. Since then, polyphony, distorted perspectives, intertextual references, and a play on fiction and reality have been hallmarks of Algerian novels.

"Complex tale of deliberate confusion": Kateb Yacine is one of the founders of modern Algerian literature

​​Where does reality end, where does literature begin? What is the meaning of memory? The sheer variety of themes addressed by Algerian literature is also staggering: Habib Tengour's literary grapplings with the issues of exile, identity and cultural globalisation are examples of world literature in every sense.

The full range of Algerian literature

Maissa Bey doesn't just write about the Algerian war of liberation and the terror of the 1990s. She has also written fascinating short stories about challenging the boundaries between life and death or about mother-daughter relatioships (among others in the short story collection "Sous Le Jasmin La Nuit").

Young authors such as Amara Lakhous, Kamel Daoud and Kawthar Adimi describe the everyday lives of young Algerians on both sides of the Mediterranean with a wonderful freshness and humour. "With us it's always about the whole picture, about life and death," says novelist Boualem Sansal. "Our subject is violence, and we use violent language."

On the 50th anniversary of Algeria's independence, it is undoubtedly appropriate to highlight just how little progress has been made in processing the legacy of this violent chapter on both a political and social level. But Algerian literature deserves to be appreciated in its full range, and not just as a creatively packaged chronicle of contemporary history.

Martina Sabra

© 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp/