The Origins of Algerian Literature: Five Questions to Ask

Hervé Sanson is a specialist in Maghreb literature. It tells of the conditions for the emergence of French-speaking Algerian literature in the 1950s when the country plunged into a brutal war of liberation. The first generation of Algerian novelists and poets paved the way between the militant and the aesthetic imperative and founded a modern and inventive literature in its form and close to the misery and aspirations of their people in their themes. Maintenance.

RFI: Algerian literature is one of the most dynamic literatures in the French-speaking field. When will the first major Algerian novels arrive?

Herve Sanson: Already in the early 1950s, before the eruption of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 1954, there were already the first major texts of French-speaking Algerian literature that appeared about the unjust colonization system, which condemned the injustices caused by this colonial system and the growing awareness among Algerians about the feeling of injustice and therefore about the need to remedy it. And so this growing national feeling is a prelude, yes, to later, the various novels that will directly deal with the war of liberation.

I’m thinking of Mohammed Dib with La Grande maison and his “Algeria” trilogy. La Grande Maison appeared in 1952, L’fire 1954, which effectively condemned the colonial system and all its injustices and segregation, a form of segregation and in any case the inequalities that prevailed between the two societies then living in Algeria. And these novels are, in fact, a prelude to more “engaged” novels in quotes that will deal with the next stage, namely the National War of Independence.

For example Nedjma, eponymous novel from the pen of a young unknown named Kateb Yacine

The publication of Nedjma is a basic date in 1956. Nedjma, which does not deal with, it must be remembered directly about the National War of Independence because it is in fact the subject of Nedjma, it is the demonstrations on May 8, 1945 and the oppression that followed. A number of historians today say that the Algerian war begins in some way on May 8, 1945, because May 8, 45 for the Algerians represents a basic moment of national consciousness and the fact that there was nothing more to expect from colonial times. the system. Nedjma is the theme. Obviously then with this fascinating character, Nedjma, who both fascinate as a magnet, captivates the male protagonists – the four cousins ​​who are the main heroes in this novel – and who at the same time are in a form of flight that we do. never manages to reach, and who is constantly fleeing. This character has fascinated generations of Algerian and non-Algerian readers, and this partly explains this magnetism, I would say, in this novel that really shaped French-speaking Algerian literature.

We must also mention Assia Djebar, one of the few women at the time who picked up the pen. In 1957, at the age of eighteen, she published her first novel, Les Alouettes naives, which gave her the comparison with Françoise Sagan. These young writers show an astonishingly large literary maturity. Their novels are not vulgar pamphlets. What are its main characteristics?

What distinguishes these different writers is obviously what I would call a strong poeticity. A work about language, about rhythm, about meaning. It should be remembered that Kateb, as well as Dib, first introduced herself as a poet. Dib said it all the way. While we first know him as a novelist: “I am basically a poet” and Kateb Yacine was also a poet and therefore the poetics of this language is one of the main criteria for this literature and then also the fact, I think the reader perceives it…

Aragon said this when he did the preface to Dib’s first collection of poems, Guardian Shadows, he wrote: “This man writes in my language, it’s strange, I understand all words and at the same time this is not French from France. I feel a strange in what is written.I feel a foreign accent.And in fact, under the French of the scripture, short in cavity, – I want to say, – either the Arabic mother tongue or the Kabyle mother tongue.And I think that this strange accent is really also one of the essential parameters of this French-speaking literature.

You will agree, this Algerian francophone is not self-evident. Is it not paradoxical to want to fight colonialism in the language of the colonist?

The paradox is actually just obvious. Why write in the language of the colonizer to effectively condemn the colonial system. Many reasons. First, it should be remembered that these writers were trained in French. They went to French school and in the end, if they had not written in French, they would not have written. Many in this generation have said it: the language they mastered most was French. So the question does not arise even when we tirelessly ask these writers who get a little tired: “But why do you write in French?” “I can only write in French and I remind you that there was a phenomenon called the occupation, the French colonization of Algeria for 132 years. This explains why I write in French. But apart from that, Kateb Yacine’s formula has been quoted a lot, maybe too much, but a powerful formula. “French is our prey to war.” In fact, the Algerians lived, suffered from French colonization for 132 years and at the time of independence, this culture for at least a large part of them had taken it. They had assimilated it and in the name of what would they have got rid of it, sacrificed it because they gained independence? This French language and culture was also an access to modernity, a language with great culture and at the same time an access to modernity that the Algerians would have been wrong to deprive themselves of. In any case, this is how a large number of Algerian writers have experienced things and writers like Mouloud Mammeri or Dib have never had any problems, a dilemma to write in French.

If only three novels about the Algerian war were to be selected, what would be your choice, Hervé Sanson?

I quote, of course, Mohammed Dib, once again, who is the first with An African Summer in 1959, when the war is not over, to directly evoke this struggle for independence. I’m obviously thinking, as I mentioned, of Mouloud Mammeri with L’Opium et le stick (1965). We are in this complexity, precisely because of our commitment to the struggle for independence. But I still want to add a third author because you still have to quote an author, and not stay in an exclusively male circle. I would like to quote Assia Djebar with La Femme sans sepulture, which is much newer, which is from 2002, where she returns to the role of moudjahida, by these combatants from the war of liberation who moved after 1962 in the private, domestic sphere and who somehow have deprived of their participation in this story.

Hervé Sanson is a doctor of letters, assistant researcher at ITEM (CNRS), specialist in French-speaking literature from the Maghreb. To read, his latest article on the subject mentioned in this interview: “A dynamic game with loss (Bleu blanc vert by Maïssa Bey and Écorces by Hajar Bali)”, in Mémoires en jeu, special issue 15-16, winter 2021-2022 , edited by Catherine Brun, Sébastien Ledoux and Philippe Mesnard, p. 147-151.

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