L’Amour by Marguerite Duras – A Review

Marguerite Duras
Open Letter, 2013 pg 109

Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour is a fascinating experiment in style and story telling. Functioning almost as a film script, the novel eschews typical approaches to narrative and distills the book into dialog and simple descriptions of action. The lean writing is fragmentary, as if the reader were the camera eye, making the reading disorienting, as the narrative starts, stops, repeats itself as the images are overlay-ed on themselves. The effect  is a powerfully transitory exploration of three lives rendered in as objectively physical terms as any piece of fiction can be.

The story follows a traveler who comes to the town S. Thala. It is not clear why he is there at first, he just roams at the edge of the scene. Then slowly he enters to talk with the woman who sits on the beach mysteriously. They interact in short fragmentary conversations that are illusive and return to a past that is never clear. Between the fragmentary conversations and the fleeting scenery, memory plays itself out as something elusive yet physical. As the traveler goes farther into the past that he has shared with the woman there is a clarity, not so much in the relationship, but in the impossibility of memory to create a well rounded explanation of events. Story fails.

The traveler, of course, is only moving through time, reconstructing what once had shape. He fails, though, to construct an overarching narrative. Or better said, he fails to construct one for the reader and, instead, finds himself reconstructing the little scenes of a story. Duras posits a cinematographic vision of memory, or grasps the only metaphor possible in the age of cinema. Again, it makes for disorienting reading, a disorientation that is pleasurable as the traveler moves from the beach where he first meets the woman, towards the hotel where the deeper anxieties of relationships once played themselves out. The shore is calm, soothing; the hotel is terrifying with hints of tragedy and fracturing love.  S. Thala is not a place where one wants to return.

The notion of a place of unwilling memories is evident, too, in Duras’ writing style.

It is the beginning of the afternoon. They pass by.

He, along the edge of the sea. She, on the boardwalk.

The traveler is on the boardwalk.

Shed does not see him. She does not see anything.

They walk toward the sea wall. Disappear behind it.

Perhaps they are preparing for the birth of the child, over there, behind the wall of the cry of S. Thala.

They come back that night. The seagulls screech. She walks bent slightly forward, almost heavily: its seems as if the birth of the child is imminent.

Doesn’t call them.

Everything is elusive. What is the relationship between the three people? Why the fragments of narration? The memories come but in uncertain pieces that cannot even place the birth of her child, which opens a new mystery. Who would no the woman so intimately, but not remember when the child was born. Even the construction of the sentences is fragmentary, built of simple sentences as if these memories have been suppressed, as if the rationalizations that come from long, introspective explanations have never taken place.

It is that elusiveness that enchants but also keeps the reader at a distance, always returning to the memories that resurface and collapse like the waves the characters spend so much time looking at. There is no closure for the traveler, as there should not be. Memory does not end, it is just reworked. So just as the traveler is left on the beach with his memories, so too is the reader left with uncertainty that can never quite be resolved. It makes for an effective and haunting way to end a novel of memory.

Juan Jose Saer, Mercè Rodored, Mathias Enard’s Zone Winter 2010 from Open Letter

Open Letter Press has released its fall catalog and it has some pretty exciting items in it. Of particular interest to me are Mercè Rodored’s short stories. I read her Death in Spring last summer and thought it was great. I don’t know much about Juan Jose Saer, but the description sounds interesting. And Mathias Enard’s Zone is one of those stylistic works that is too tempting not to read.You can down load the catalog which contains samples and bios from Open Letter.

The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda. Translated from the Catalan by Martha Tennent. (Catalonia) Collected here are thirty-one of Mercè Rodoreda’s most moving and challenging stories, presented in chronological order of their publication from three of Rodoreda’s most beloved short story collections: Twenty-Two Stories, It Seemed Like Silk and Other Stories, and My Christina and Other Stories. These stories capture Rodoreda’s full range of expression, from quiet literary realism to fragmentary impressionism to dark symbolism. Few writers have captured so clearly, or explored so deeply, the lives of women who are stuck somewhere between senseless modernity and suffocating tradition—Rodoreda’s “women are notable for their almost pathological lack of volition, but also for their acute sensitivity, a nearly painful awareness of beauty” (Natasha Wimmer).

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan Jose Saer. Translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph (Argentina)

It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Rosario who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.

One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.

Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.

Zone by Mathias Enard. Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. (France)

Francis Servain Mirkovic, a French-born Croat who has been working for the French Intelligence Services for fifteen years, is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. He’s carrying a briefcase whose contents he’s selling to a representative from the Vatican; the briefcase contains a wealth of information about the violent history of the Zone—the lands of the Mediterranean basin, Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, Italy, that have become Mirkovic’s specialty.

Over the course of a single night, Mirkovic visits the sites of these tragedies in his memory and recalls the damage that his own participation in that violence—as a soldier fighting for Croatia during the Balkan Wars—has wreaked in his own life. Mirkovic hopes that this night will be his last in the Zone, that this journey will expiate his sins, and that he can disappear with Sashka, the only woman he hasn’t abandoned, forever . . .

One of the truly original books of the decade—and written as a single, hypnotic, propulsive, physically irresistible sentence—Mathias Énard’s Zone provides an extraordinary and panoramic view of the turmoil that has long deviled the shores of the Mediterranean.

The German Mujahid, by Boualem Sansal – A Review

The German Mujahid
Boualem Sansal, pg 227

Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid tries to link Islamist violence, the Holocaust, and the Algerian police state into a larger statement about totalitarian regimes and intolerance. In one way it is an ambitious idea: link seemingly disparate historical events like the Holocaust and Islamist violence in Paris suburbs, while creating a narrative that can plausibly hold the elements together. On the other hand, a book with such themes could easily veer into didactic sermonizing about the evils of totalitarian regimes, lumping them all into one group and not exploring what made them so horrible. While The German Mujahid does put together a plausible narrative, it also suffers from the later problem so that at times it seems as if Sansal can’t afford to wait any longer to tell us about how horrible these regimes are and has to shout it. If I lived in Algeria as he does perhaps I would be shouting, too. But as a work of literature it has a few deficiencies that don’t make it a bad book, just one that doesn’t understand subtly.

The German Mujahid is about two brothers, Rachel and his younger brother Malrich. They have lived in France since childhood, but their parents still live in rural Algeria, the Bled. Their mother is Berber but their father is German, a veteran of the Algerian war of independence.  In 1994, in the midst of the Islamist war in Algeria, their parents and several other villagers are murdered. Rachel returns to the village to take care of the estate and he finds a box with his father’s papers, which indicate that he had been, among other things, an SS officer at Auschwitz. It is a damning realization and Rachel sinks into a depression as he slowly untangles his father’s involvement in the Holocaust and then his subsequent flight to Egypt and Algeria. It is too overwhelming and Rachel sizes on the idea that he has to pay for the sins of the father.  Since his father died without atoning or facing justice, he will do it for him, dying in his garage overcome by car exhaust fumes.

Malrich, a petty criminal living in one of the high rise residences on the outskirts of Paris, follows the same investigation as Rachel. Using Rachel’s diary, Malrich also comes to terms with his father’s past. But Malrich, instead of wanting to pay for the sins of the father, internalizes the role of the victim and sees around him in the residence and in Algeria just more Nazis using whatever ideology they can to control and brutalize. Malrich sees the local imam and his thuggish Islamist  toughs as just a new incarnation of the Gestapo. He wants to take them on, fight them before they can start new death camps, which he fears the residences will become. Yet the French government seems unwilling to take on this fight at the end of the book he gives his summation of the state of things.

The Islamists are already here, they’re settled and here we are,  bound hand and foot, caught in the trap. If they don’t exterminate us, they’ll stop us from living. Worse still, they’ll turn us into our own guards, deferential to the emir, merciless to each other. We’ll be Kapos.

It is clear that Sansal sees the Islamist’s goals are not too dissimilar to those of the Nazi’s. He is not subtle about this at all. He also extends his criticism, though, to the government in Algeria, whose socialist state has been repressive from the beginning, only getting worse when it put down the Islamist terror campaign in the 90s.

While equivalency between horrors is wasted math, the totalitarian traits of all the groups is not in question and Sansal is right to make the links. In the context of Arab and Algerian literature, too, the book is important because it addresses topics that have either been avoided, or baned. Sansal it seems is trying to break the Islamist and Algerian issues from their respective religious and nationalistic imperatives, and make a comparison that is outside of the specific grievances that make for easy justifications, and say, look, you are doing the same.

The question, then, is how well does Sansal do this? Does he address the responsibility for guilt? Does he link the themes together adequately? In many ways he doesn’t succeed. The problem is the two brothers are so extreme they become embodiments of an inflexible rhetorical position that seems everything in black and white. Their approach to confronting these issues is to either die or to become paranoid, which could be called a psychic shock as the confront the past, but in reality makes them unable to actually confront the horrors they want to confront. Suicide is a private act that redeems no one and Malrich’s street tough persona doesn’t yet have the ability to organize and confront what he fears. And this is Sansal’s problem: he describes the problem, but doesn’t know what else to do but collapse in desperation.

The sense of desperation is partly from the literary device he uses: each brother writes their own journal entries. The journals are detailed and move the story along quickly, but they also create a myopia that places the individual’s experience at the center of the story and becomes a self reinforcing set of complaints, so that instead of seeing their lives in a larger context (even against the third person description of a street) you only have the one frame. While no writer has to put a story in context, Sansal seems to want to make a larger point, but what he produces is panic. A personal panic set against shadowy terror. Perhaps panic is the emotion you would feels if you were Malrich, but in the book it comes across an author more interested in warning the world than writing literature.

Perhaps given Sansal’s theme that is not a bad thing.

100% Arabica – A Review

If you want an insightful film that will explain the problems of Algerian immigrants in France, this is not the film. Yet it does have its moments and is a Raï fan’s attack on those problems, which gives it a certain weight. At the same time the film is a was a young persons film, one of those films that celebrates youth culture and asks why the adult world is so afraid of what the kids are doing these days.

The film follows a Raï band as they try to break out of their ghetto and make a living from their music. They are all former criminals and the temptation to steal is strong, especially since there are not too many opportunities in the ghetto. French discrimination of immigrants is quite well known and the film does not shy away from suggesting there isn’t much beyond the ghetto. While the band and the inhabits of the neighborhood try to live in peace, the local imam tries to get rich by imposing a fundamentalist form of Islam on the neighborhood. The imam is completely corrupt and is only interested in getting more people to support him. He works with the mayor, who is only interested in getting reelected and doesn’t care about what happens in the neighborhood, and takes his money to try and convince the neighborhood it should follow him.

The members of the band, fronted by Khaled, fight against all of these problems. They struggle to get money for a show, struggle against the imam who says music is forbidden, struggle with their parents who think they are bums. As in all musicals, though, the music is all powerful and everyone except the imam love the music. In the end, despite the machinations of the imam, the band celebrates with a triumphal show in the neighborhood and and the imam is driven from the neighborhood in a pork delivery truck. Music defeats intolerance.

The film is supposed to be a comedy and in a way it is, but it is seldom funny. Instead it comes off as a problem film with music. It is much better than Blackboard Jungle which is another problem film with young people’s music, because the musicians made the film. It shows the real preoccupations and problems the Algerian youth in France have. Every element, lack of jobs, corrupt officials, fundamentalist Imams, all have their bases in reality, and in this sense the movie is interesting. However, the narrative thread is week and so many characters come and go throughout the film that no character can develop very much. Everything in the film is for the insiders who can fill in the gaps, who know what it is like to live there. If you are an insider it makes for a pleasing film, if not, it makes for a film that is uneven.

The music, however, makes the film worth watching. There are several good performances by Khaled and Cheb Mami of some of their well known songs. The versions are not the album versions. Khaled has several good scenes where they show him working out a song and he is working with just one keyboard player and no mic. The performance is very intimate and well worth a watch.

In all, 100% Arabica is not one of the best movies but it if you have even a passing interest in Raï it is worth it.