TAHAR DJAOUT (tr. Marjolijn de Jager)
Introduction by Alek Baylee Toumi
Foreword by Wole Soyinka
$16.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.75* of five
The Publisher Says: This elegant, haunting novel takes us deep into the world of bookstore owner Boualem Yekker. He lives in a country being overtaken by the Vigilant Brothers, a radically conservative party that seeks to control every element of life according to the laws of their stringent moral theology: no work of beauty created by human hands should rival the wonders of their god. Once-treasured art and literature are now despised.
Silently holding his ground, Boualem withstands the new regime, using the shop and his personal history as weapons against puritanical forces. Readers are taken into the lush depths of the bookseller's dreams, the memories of his now-empty family life, his passion for literature, then yanked back into the terror and drudgery of his daily routine by the vandalism, assaults, and death warrants that afflict him.
From renowned Algerian author Tahar Djaout we inherit a brutal and startling story that reveals how far an ordinary human being will go to maintain hope.
THIS WAS A BIRTHDAY GIFT (ALBEIT UNWITTING!) FROM A FRIEND. THANKS, YOUR KICKASSNESS!
My Review: First of all, let's clear up something that could cause a lot of people pleasure-robbing confusion: This is not a novel. It is a récit. The narrative is so limited in its focus that there is no sense of a world larger than itself, which makes the reader aware at all times that they are reading a narrative. This is not an insult or a criticism of the technique used, but of the marketing decision to call this a novel. It will disappoint novel-readers who buy it hoping for that immersive, multi-faceted experience of a story.
The Introduction by Toumi and the Foreword by Soyinka are essays fully worthy of reviews of their own. I will not be providing those reviews because I am not a scholar. The context they present is the infuriating context of the murdered Author Djaout's life and times. The facts of his all-too-brief life are on Wikipedia for monoglot English speakers. There is so much that US citizens have simply ignored or willfully shut out of their experience of the world, and as a result we seem to be willing to leap over high precipices to fall into fathomless oceans of rage and hatred, as Djaout warns his readers against. Boualem, his PoV character, is thrown over the edge willy-nilly, but he's got just enough time to form himself into an arrow.
The dive one takes while reading the book is deep, though, so don't think it's not profound and perception-altering to experience Boualem's deep dive into despair as his world, his entire life's work of defining and refining himself as a moral actor in that world, is fractured and flattened by a social earthquake. The depths of despair Boualem plumbs will be familiar to book-lovers watching the steady, pernicious, and malicious attacks on education, intelligence, and erudition we're seeing in the US.
I used up about half a can of Book Darts (may the goddesses please bless my kind friend Stephanie for gifting me this timely top-up of my supply for this past birthday!) marking beautiful passages to quote in my review. The lovely translation done by Translator de Jager is almost too rich a confection to be devoured in a sitting...but I did it. Yes, it was like a breakfast of rich brownies topped with lemon curd and served with a café viennoise, but it was also a heady experience of glorious phrase-making. I was Zooming with my Young Gentleman Caller while I was writing an earlier draft of this review. He said of my Book Darted copy, "I don't dare take it to the airport like that."
"It's got more hardware than a Goth biker."
Oh. Well, yes. Permaybehaps I'd better make the point sharper and more targeted:
Books—the closeness of them, their contact, their smell, and their contents—constitute the safest refuge against this world of horror. They are the most pleasant and the most subtle means of traveling to a more compassionate planet. How will Boualem go on living now that they have separated him from his books, his most invigorating nourishment? He is like a plant that has been torn from the soil, separated from liquid and light, its two vital necessities. He has been excluded from the life of books. He has been exiled from all the landmarks of his childhood: values, trampled, symbols corrupted, spaces disfigured and wrecked.That, my olds, is what's right and what's wrong with this récit. If you ran across the first two sentences in a novel, you'd think, "oo, that's pretty." Put the rest of the para behind it and you're in a récit not a novel, and one that needed a developmental editor's unkind attention. There is so very much of this sort of pretty, pretty phrasemaking that just goes on that little bit too long, that says what's already been said (“For books are more than books, they are the life, the very heart and core of ages past, the reason why men worked and died, the essence and quintessence of their lives.”–Cicero, b. 106BCE, and a famous enough quote that Author Djaout can reasonably be expected to have read it during his education) in a not hugely fresh way.
That said, one is disinclined to hammer the hell out of the book because it was incomplete and fished out of the author's drawers after his murder. I know, and I can't explain how, that this book would've been absolutely earth-shattering had he lived, and had the chance to work with an editor to bring its many stregths and beauties into a finer, sharper focus. There is about this read the ozone smell and static crackle of greatness. The sadness that follows reading it is rooted in the sense that this promise is undelivered, in fact undeliverable, because Author Tahar Djaout was murdered by the pro-ignorance, anti-beauty forces that ran roughshod over his country.
Do not think the same can not happen here, happen again, happen to the resisters and artists and truth-tellers you're ignoring, skimming, marginalizing today. Vote Blue in November 2020 and allow Author Tahar Djaout's sacrifice of his life to be worthy.