Djebar, Assia, Literary Fiction

Review of L’Amour, la fantasia by Assia Djebar L'amour, La Fantasia (Le Livre De Poche) (French ...L’Amour, la fantasia [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade] by Assia Djebar is a book about the female Algerian experience. It is just as much about colonialism as it is about patriarchy. The book is divided into movements, like a musical fantasia. The sections alternate between an account of the 1840s colonization of Algeria by the French, the involvement of women in the Algerian Revolution of the 1950s (which ended in 1962), and the author’s own childhood during the Revolution. Djebar’s prose style is also varied. Some parts are in prose poetry while others are in more traditional prose.

Assia Djebar is considered the greatest female Algerian writer of the 20th-century, and for good reason. L’Amour, la fantasia is a powerful exploration of a female Algerian identity shaped by cultures, languages, and religions. Although Djebar writes in the language of the oppressor, she interrogates the accounts left by the French conquerors of Algeria. The French language is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it provided the author with educational opportunities; Djebar was the first Muslim woman to graduate from an école normale supérieure (essentially the French “Ivy League”) in France. A curse, because the effects of colonialism continue to be felt both in Algeria and in France.

This book is challenging in both its form and its content. The novel assumes a knowledge of people and places that the Western reader probably does not have. I believe that this is a deliberate strategy to de-center the European gaze. Postcolonial fiction, such as L’Amour, la fantasia, is always challenging for those of us who are unfamiliar with its history. Since reading this book, I have been inspired to learn more about both the conquest of Algeria and in the Revolution. I also hope to read more from Djebar in the coming months.

L’Amour, la fantasia is one of my 20 Books of Summer for 2020.

Literary Fiction, Tournier, Michel

Review of La Goutte D’Or (The Golden Droplet) by Michel Tournier

Image result for the golden droplet tournierLa goutte d’or (The Golden Droplet) by Michel Tournier follows Idriss from the Saharan oasis of Tabelbala to Marseille, France. One day, a French couple arrives in a Land Rover, and the woman with blond hair takes a picture of Idriss. Because photography is taboo in this village, Idriss feels a strong desire to retrieve his photo from the blond haired woman.

Only a short distance away from Tabelbala is a major Algerian city. Everything is different there. The natural history museum has an exhibit dedicated to the Sahara. Idriss knows that his village is on display, but none of it feels familiar. Most of the Algerians at the museum are just as ignorant of life in the oasis as was the blond haired woman who took Idriss’ picture.

Photography is front and center in this novel. Tournier explores the relationship between portrait-making and colonialism. Idriss is a model everywhere he goes. Nearly everyone he meets thinks he represents “foreignness”, “orientalism”, and the Maghreb region.

Idriss’ photo is at once specific and universal. He must have two forms of identification with him at all times, but the people he meets think Idriss represents an entire race. Indeed, mannequin artists decide to make a mannequin of Idriss’ profile for a French department store with a large North African clientele.

But the racism goes both ways. Every French woman Idriss meets resembles the woman with the blond hair. He wants to ask all of them whether they have Idriss’ picture. In Tournier’s novel, the “other” is acknowledged only as a portrait. A picture is a flat and lifeless reproduction of one moment in a person’s life. It can’t represent the entirety of a person’s identity, let alone every individual in a particular group. Idriss looks at his government IDs, but he can’t recognize himself in them. He feels like the photos have taken away some of his humanity. He is objectified and commodified. Most terrifying is the realization that his image may outlive him.

In The Golden Droplet, most scenes are linked to one another through “face” imagery. Idriss’ pilgrimage to Marseille is not only a journey of self-discovery but one of self-forgetfulness. He feels like an actor in a play. A number of characters in the novel reflect on the human face and what it represents

Unfortunately, Tournier is way too heavy handed with his imagery. From the very beginning, the reader knows the message the author is trying to convey. Sometimes, Tournier paints a picture (pun intended) and then proceeds to explain it to us. The last third of the book is overwhelmingly didactic. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

In general, though, Tournier’s novel is both thought-provoking and enjoyable. It is one of the first books I’ve read that has explored the hostility between ethnic groups in Algeria. If you are interested in modern post-colonial French literature, I recommend The Golden Droplet. It certainly would help to read Tournier’s novel alongside Emmanuel Lévinas’ philosophy. Lévinas had quite a lot to say about faces.