1001 words about a modern day sheherazade…
After being secretly proud of myself for keeping my readerly expectations to a minimum when I reviewed the last two much hyped novelists back to back, I had no such prejudice when starting Algerian author Assia Djebar’s 1985 novel, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade. In fact I had never heard of her, and this book only made my reading stack based on lists that have been floating around the net suggesting possible 2009 Nobel prize contenders… (now, be honest, most of you have not heard of half these writers either…)
My brow (low as is it) raised when I read that Assia Djebar is the owner of some serious literary credentials: 1996 Neustad Prize winner and the Yourcenar prize the following year. She became a member of the prestigious Académie Française in 2005 and she is currently professor of Francophone Literature at New York University.
I will admit now up front, at first glance I had preconceived notions of a ‘lighter’ read. I was surprised when I thumbed the first few pages to see a Glossary of Berber-Arabic terms, a Chronology of Algerian History, and the Contents listing the three titled parts to the narrative; with the ‘Part III’ broken into five ’movements’. Notice was duly taken, I settled into the book and when the desert dust and last shrill clamor faded, I found myself inexplicably on the other side of a Fantasia, and Assia Djebar’s third novel…
Fantasia (cultural definition): An equestrian event, a traditional closing of a Berber wedding celebration, it is a martial performance, and also is referred to as the “Game of Gunpowder” it symbolizes a strong attachment to tradition. Fantasia (musical definition): a musical composition featuring free improvisation by the composer.
Cavalcade: A procession or parade, that focuses on a re-enactment of important historical events. It is a participation event, as opposed to a spectacle.
Many, many historic and interrelated ‘witnessed’ events, first person reports, narrative snapshots but no conventional plot= no plot synopsis. I suppose one COULD say, a Berber Arab exile looks back and makes sense of her country’s and her own personal emancipation from cultural-colonial tyrannies… but I won’t. But I can say that the prose is a tour de force: from succinct reporting to a rich lyrical extravagance, from sensuous impressionistic set pieces to keenly nuanced and detailed renderings of landscape and atmosphere.
Call it an exoskeleton, since it’s a Fantasia after all…Since the book overtly incorporates the structure of a musical fantasia (and since I have NO formal knowledge of music theory, I had to look it up!): its says it is characterized by free improvisation, a loose ‘arrangement’ of thematically contrapuntal sections or ‘Fugue’ overlaying each other to enhance and develop themes… There are two narratives, the first in the “current” time, a narrator look’s back on her formative years as an Arab girl in colonial Algiers. The second consist of The Cavalcade: a pageant of two counterpointed histories, the first more recent past, during the 1954-62 Algerian War of Independence largely from the point of view of the colonized (Algerians) and the distant, 1830 French conquest culled from actual first person accounts, primarily from the perspective of the conquerors (French).
There are thematic dichotomies, or dialectics Djebar explores through the novel’s contrapuntal structure, or Fugue. The colonized vs the colonizers, the theme of (big L) Language: the oral tradition of capturing and expressing the past of the Berber tribesmen vs the French, written language. Cultural repression as in the social mores of the veil ( the subsumed feminine identity as entrenched in the traditions of her homeland) vs emancipation ( feminine self expression). The self vs the Other (the self is equated as the colonized, the Other the colonizers). A major leitmotiv in the novel is the theme of Love Letter and the written word. In an early scene, the narrator recounts how she and her French-schooled sisters have clandestinely sent out ‘Love Letters’ to unknown paramours listed in the personal sections of a magazine. It is counterpointed with the dispatches of the war historian’s correspondences sent back to France. These early correspondents have conflicted emotions about the monstrosities of war, and are cause for self examination. We develop a sense that the colonizers are attracted to this alien world of Algiers, like an uncontrollable desire for a woman: it is equated to forcible sexual conquest:
these new crusaders of the colonial era, overwhelmed by such a clamor of voices, wallow in the depths of concentrated sound. Penetrated and deflowered; Africa is taken despite the protesting cries that she cannot stifle.
This highly complex structure used in the novel is a wonderfully interesting arrangement: there are five sections in each movement, a ‘Voice” section, a short narrative of a tale of death or survival in the War of Independence, a titled prose poem, followed by another Voice section, this is then followed by a section called ‘Embrace’ an vignette of an event or scene from the first War of conquest. Overall though, there is an imbalance due to the fugue portion which is contained in the five ‘movements’ of part III, it is overweight with at least two of the Voice sections seemed to me to not add anything thematically to their counterparts, they seemed to be repetitious. It should be emphasized heavily that the novel is NOT disjointed as it may sound by my simple breakdown. Djebar artfully ties together multiple elements that I have not even touched on: images and motifs of cultural ceremony (such the ululations of the tribes women, shrill cries of celebration or lament) , the allusions to the role of the storyteller embedded in their culture in the figure of Sheherazade..and finally the Muslim/Quranic elements and her probably controversial depiction on its deleterious affect on the role of women in Algerian society.
What I took Away: (Blarmy part)
This work is first part of a projected Quartet. (I ordered the second novel, A Sister to Sherehazade )
I get the sense that Fantasia is a story that the writer had to get out as if her life depended on it. She found a form to give her country’s chaotic past a supremely rich voice. What is unclear is if her Sherazade’s voice finds listening, unveiled ears in her homeland.