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ALGERIA: Mouloud Mammeri, a novelist's vocation

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Mouloud MammeriA few months ago Mouloud Mammeri published a new novel, La Traversée, his first for 17 years. It is also his first novel to deal with independent Algeria.

In the new novel, published in Paris, the main character, Murad, is a journalist who writes an allegorical article called “the crossing of the desert”. It describes the long march of a caravan defended by heroes. The problem for the people in the caravan is to preserve enough heroes to get them safely to the oasis while ensuring that, when they arrive, they have enough room to breathe.

The article is, as Murad expects, criticised by the Party, and he resigns from his newspaper. In the last weeks at work he takes a foreign journalist, a woman he used to love, for a long trip in the desert. At the end of this “crossing”, Murad takes refuge in his village -- the village of La Colline Oubliée -- and stays there, waiting  for death.

This is a sombre book which raises many questions, not least of which is why Mouloud Mammeri waited 17 years to write it.

He argues that there are two ways to write: either as a journalist, a chronicler who tells of day-to-day events, or as a novelist. The novelist needs a distance from events, needs to internalise them so that they take on a different value and significance.

“A historical phenomenon like this (independence) is not a simple one. It cannot be digested easily”, Mouloud Mammeri explains. “For the youth who are 30 years old today, there are no problems. They were born in independent Algeria, grew up in it. But for someone like me, whose life was already formed at the time of independence, I had to adapt myself to a new way of life which I had hoped and fought for. So for me this post-independence period was at the same time decisive, essential and traumatic”.

During those 17 years he wrote short stories which have not yet been published and started work on a new novel. He also published an anthology and two studies of Berber poetry.

Like many Kabyles, Mouloud Mammeri believed that the freedom for which they fought so hard would be shared equally by all Algerians, that the new Algeria would accomodate Berber culture and that there would be two languages in the new Algeria: Arabic and berber.

The Berber Spring

But after the crisis of the  “Berber spring” of 1980, sparked off by the banning of a conference (in which Mouloud Mammeri was involved) on Berber poetry in Tizi Ouzou, the main capital of Kabylie, it became clear that these hopes were vain. Mouloud Mammeri does not discuss these issues. The Berber question is taboo in Algeria.

But the depth of his disappointment and bitterness shows in La Traversée. He admits, “Yes, I do claim this bitterness. But there are reasons for it. I believe the function, the vocation of a novelist is to question anything that negates the human being. Politicians may have to take into account sociological and economic realities, but I am not a politician; and as a novelist I am interested in the fate of man and his freedom. When this freedom is not granted, I am convinced that something is missing and that my role is precisely to cry out that something is missing. Otherwise, who will take up this role”?

Recalling the old saying “the republic was so beautiful under the empire”, Mouloud Mammeri says that the men who made the Algerian revolution had “beautiful images of the future” -- images which the reality did not live up to. “This was becoming evident even before it all began”, he adds. “But still, somebody had to say it. And since I am getting old, since I have nothing to fear, it happened that I had to say it”.

For example, he writes in La Traversée that “heroes are troublesome, one should get rid of them”. He admits he may be pushing this argument too far, but when asked if this is the way he assesses 20 years of Algerian independence, he answers, “I believe it is an international phenomenon. There are those who make a revolution and those who -- I daren’t say profit by it -- but manipulate it, who shape it afterwards. Usually they don’t do it very well”.

For Mouloud Mammeri, heroes cannot confront “the terrible traps of peace”. The war of liberation was too long, he says. “Seven and a half years was a long time to fight so hard”. There are virtues and qualities whicgh are useful during the struggle, but which have great shortcomings when peace comes;

“A man who has been a hero for seven years is crippled when he comes back because he does not know what to do with his heroism. It is useless for the daily routine of the state. To settle small problems one needs different qualities than those needed to live underground”.

One of the most telling scenes in La Traversée takes place in a school for the Targui nomads. When a visitor asks the children, who are reluctant pupils, what they want to be when they grow up, they all answer “truck drivers”, because this, for them, is freedom -- to go wherever they wish.

“It’s not that I want to condemn these children to the absenteeism of the desert. These boys must go to school, I agree, but I say we should create schools adapted to their way of life. We should not force on them an enslaved happiness. Between an enslaved happiness and a free poverty, I opt for the second. The deprivation of freedom never leads anywhere, even if it is loaded with good intentions”.

Mouloud Mammeri wants this freedom for Algerian cultures. Evaluating the results of 20 years of independence, he concedes that the question of culture is not an easy one.

“Culture is something living and if someone wants to control it by decrees from an office, inside four walls, I say he is killing it. There is no such thing as state culture. It does not exists. It is a nonsense. In Algeria, there are popular cultures, primitive and dissimilar from each other. The problem is that often they are cultures which are lived but are not considered legitimate. And here is a dilemma”.

If these cultures have taken on a vaguely folkloric form they are allowed to express themselves, because a “folkloric” culture is not really a culture. Folklore is an invention inherited from Western civilisation. As soon as a popular culture is transformed into folklore, it is devalued, depreciated. Folklore is a lower culture for commercial use. But in Algeria there is a popular culture which is a real culture. The problem is its recognition so that it could be given modern form of expression”. For Mouloud Mammeri this is a key issue to which “for the moment, I give all my time”.

(The Middle East magazine, February 1984)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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