This is a book about giving a voice to those who are silent. And to those who have been silenced. Many people’s stories weave in and out of one another, a tangle of emotion that eventually forms the tapestry of a nation’s soul. The stories center on Algeria – both during France’s initial occupation of Algeria in the 1830s and Algeria’s war for independence in the 1950s.
Most of the voices heard in this book are those of Algerian women. The author herself, older war widows, young brides, outspoken women held in French prisons, silent watchers hidden behind their veils. Ms. Djebar (an Algerian writer and member of l’Académie Française) juxtaposes stories and images to communicate in an understated way: the freedoms of French women up against the brutality of French generals, the repression of the veil alongside the bravery of Algerian women during the desperate circumstances of the war, the heartwarming along with the savage.
As I was reading the book, I found it to be quite frustrating. It’s written almost entirely in the first person, but the narrator shifts without warning. In each chapter, it required effort to discover the identity of the narrator. At one moment the narrative is a memoir, at the next it’s a historical account, then it’s an interview with survivors of the war. This made for a very frustrating read at times, but in the end the pieces all came together like a mosaic, all the more beautiful and intriguing for the confusion and diversity of its materials. Ultimately I was left with the impression that it was less important for me to know the identity of each speaker than to know that their combined voices made up the pulse of their struggling nation – a heartbeat of shared experiences during a time of war and suffering.
Amid my frustration with the book’s form, it was the style of the language that kept me reading. The words and images struck me with force; each scene felt vivid and immediate. I was struck by the recurrence of the image of the veil: we see the veil not only as a garment that hides, covers, and secludes women in their own cloistered world, but also as a metaphoric covering or baring of emotions in daily interactions. Djebar points to the power of the veil as an image both when she describes a veiled face as a face tuméfiée and when she speaks of writing as a refusal to veil her voice.
Among the many stories, each told in its own unique voice, there is one chapter that brings an intimacy between the reader and the text that is almost hard to bear. It is written in the second person (in French the even more intimate tu form), and tells the story of a pregnant Algerian hostage on a French ship. She gives birth to a stillborn son and we feel her desperation as she senses that she no longer has a land in which to bury him. The immediacy given by the feeling that the story is being told about oneself gathers the reader up into the full storm of emotion in the Algerian plight. I can only end with the power of this woman’s words: Notre terre est à eux! Cette mer est à eux! Où arbiter mon fils mort? N’y aura-t-il plus jamais un coin d’Islam pour nous, les malheureux? (Our land belongs to them! This sea belongs to them! Where to shelter my dead son? Is there no longer a single corner of Islam for us, the unfortunates?)