I read Albert Camus’s L’Étranger in high school or university but it only makes sense to find another author for this project. My city library had books from Algeria – in one of the branches that’s been inaccessible since the February earthquake. My university library also had some good candidates – on one of the floors that’s been inaccessible ditto. I found this one on the Kobo bookstore, making it the first ebook I’ve read for this project (though certainly not the first ebook I’ve read).
Algerian White is essentially a longform personal essay: Djebar explores the deaths of three friends in particular and of Algerian writers in general, some from accidents or illness but a distressingly long procession assassinated in the succession of “events” from the 1950s to the 1990s. Where writing is so heavily intermingled with politics, this book becomes an overview of both Algerian history and Algerian literature from the War of Independence through to its publication in 1995, but all told from this very intimate point of view.
In retrospect I should have tried harder to find it in the original French. Language is so central to its theme – right from the start Djebar discusses her relationships with French, Arabic, and Berber in a way that reminded me of the Engliss Only, Pliss Tumblr, and this idea emerges again and again, only gaining importance throughout the book as it’s seen through the lens of the different authors and their lives and deaths. And Djebar chooses her words so very carefully, writing in the very literary French where you don’t use a vague word when a precise one will do, nor a simple sentence structure in place of the complex – although ellipsis… The translator has clearly been reluctant to mess with this language, so that reading it in English put me into the francophone mindset just the same way reading actual French does, to the point where I was tutoie-ing my cat. Since literary French and literary English work so differently, this makes it very difficult to read to begin with, and at least once I noticed an undertranslation (“C’est normal” doesn’t mean what we mean by “It’s normal”; it’s more akin to “It’s proper” formally, or informally “It’s the Way We Do Things around here”.)
But though it can be annoying to need to reread every second sentence to understand it, it’s mind-expanding to read prose that rewards it as Djebar’s prose does. It’s highly allusive, often close to poetry. I found myself making extracts just to come back to the thought later. Slow reading, because so very dense with meaning.