Thursday, April 26, 2018

“An Algerian Doll’s House”

A Wife For My Son by Ali Ghalem

Today I believe in the possibility of love; that is why
   I endeavor to trace its imperfections, its perversions.

                                                                    Franz Fanon

How very sad it is that this novel is out of print, indeed long out of print, as it is one of the most complex, most moving explorations I have ever read of what it means to be a Muslim today, in this case an Algerian Muslim woman struggling hard to define herself amidst the competing claims of traditional Islam and those of the modern world. Originally published in 1979 as Une femme por mon fils, it is a charged, highly nuanced treatment of the twisted, often crippling ways in which men and women are taught—even fated—to relate to one another by the traditions that bind them.

Writes Doris Tentchoff (so trenchantly I must quote her at length), A Wife For My Son “underscores the observation that the personal is political and links the personal struggle to the world stage as it chronicles the story of seventeen-year-old Fatiha’s determined struggle to gain control over her life after a traditional arranged marriage to an Algerian who toils in France as a guest worker. Drawing on the multiplicity of strands that constitute the plight of this pair, Gahlem weaves a revealing portrait of working-class life in contemporary Algeria. And because he probes intimate family relationships, the books confronts the intransigent problem: how to transform structures at the core of society—the relationships between women and men. Given Ghalem’s unflinching feminist stance, the novel is remarkable for its lack of rancor, for the compassion with which its main characters are depicted. Concern is not with an abstract good and evil, but with human beings who, for historical reasons, are locked into vastly disparate and unbridgeable worlds, each predicated on different presuppositions and operating according to a different cultural logic. The yawning gap in perceptions, expectations, and aspirations between middle-aged working-class parents on the one hand, and their offspring on the other, produces spiraling rounds of misunderstanding, conflict and crisis.”

The story, with its trenchant exploration of the relationship between the personal and political, is further intensified when one considers it against the backdrop of recent Algerian history, namely that of the French colonization of Algeria, a century-long period of tyranny and exploitation that culminated in a frenzy of bloodshed and destruction in the French-Algerian war. 

 Franz Fanon

At the heart of this struggle for national self-determination, a struggle writ small in the character of Fatiha, were such philosophers and political lions as Franz Fanon and Albert Camus, who helped to flesh out the many tensions between France and Algeria that persist to this day. Gillo Pontecorvo’s brilliant 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers.

 Albert Camus

Compared by one critic to Ibsen’s revolutionary play, A Doll’s House, this novel treats the condition of modern Muslim women, and of women in general, with an even greater frankness and depth. Not only does Fatiha slam the door on her husband, so to speak, but she renounces the entire patriarchal system by leaving him and his family home, determined to live by her own terms, to raise her newly born child alone. As a final act of hope she names her daughter “Noura” or “light”. 

Here, finally, is one of the few available photographs of the author:

Peter Adam Nash  

Sunday, April 15, 2018


Peace, by Richard Bausch 


Human history is written in blood.

No surprise really--there's plenty to fight about--land, food, women, God--and technology has showered men (always men) with the means of acting on their blood lust. Killing appears more deeply ingrained in our being than the contrary desire to live in peace and propagate our kind.  We would rather bomb our neighbors than learn their language or bow to their customs. There's something strangely erotic and deeply psychotic in the avocation of killing.  When I was in the Army we slept with our weapons and were told that "the spirit of the bayonet" was "to kill." I remember thinking that sleeping with a gun was a sad reminder that while sex is encrusted with numerous taboos (with whom, when, how, etc.), shooting people has been made remarkably simple, even guilt free.

And our enemies are all around us. Long before Darwin and Spencer supplied the language we use to degrade and dehumanize other people,  priests and kings, aristocrats and other elites supplied ample justification for murder. David Livingstone Smith's sobering study Less Than Human surveys this terrain in great detail; one is numbed but not surprised by the history of mayhem that Smith reports.  In order to kill a man face to face you have to be one of three things: compelled to do so by a state that holds the monopoly of power, temporarily insane, or convinced by your own or (more likely) someone else's ideology that your enemy is more dangerous to you than the people who blithely send you off to die. 

Simon Weil's great essay on the Iliad puts the case succinctly:

"The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away. In this work at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to."

"Deformed by the weight of the force it submits to."  This deformation has been the central subject of most of the books written about war, from Homer to Joseph Heller.  It seems to me that stories of war come in three principle types. There is the novel that uses war to supply plot and characterization; in these novels war is a backdrop, a theater in which human life and moral actions must, quite often, occur. Examples of this first type of war novel include War and Peace, The Naked and the Dead, Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, and The Caine Mutiny. The second type of war novel uses the horrors of conflict in order to examine the psychology of human beings--its focus is on character above all else and it examines what the proximity of violent death does to ordinary men and women.  There are many great novels of this kind, including Red Badge of Courage, J.G. Ballard's The Empire of the Sun, the novels of Irene Nemirovsky, James Jones's The Thin Red Line, and many others.  War novels of the third sort are anti-war novels--Slaughter-House Five and Catch-22 come to mind at once, as does Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun and Tim O'Brien's books about Vietnam.

Of course this categorization is wrong in lots of ways--there are books that overlap (All Quiet on the Western Front is both a psychological study of men under fire and one of the finest anti-war novels ever written), and thousands of novels use war as a backdrop for their plots--the recent best-sellers Pachinko and All the Light We Cannot See come to mind in this regard.

A small gem of a novel that combines all three of my (shaky) types is Richard Bausch's Peace, a story and a parable set during the Italian campaign of 1943. The novel uses the classic combat trope of the small group of men sent on a mission whose purpose is vague if not irrational. In this case, Marson, Asch, and Joyner--three grunts who are frightened (of course) and at odds (Asch, a Jew, is despised by Joyner, a mid-Western anti-Semite; it is a Hollywood fantasy that war creates "bands of brothers" rather than deepening all of the usual prejudices)--are ordered to walk up a mountain with an Italian guide who may or may not be a fascist in order to....well, it isn't clear what they are to do once they get to the top.  But that's the way of war novels: it never is clear what the mission is supposed to achieve. Modern wars are not won in battles but in a thousand pointless skirmishes.

The three GI's and their reluctant Italian guide suffer from cold rain and exposure, mutual hatreds, and the dread of men in hostile territory.  Things go badly, as they must, and while Marson proves an heroic figure, the novel doesn't let them, or the reader, believe that anything of value has been achieved or learned. Death is the only lesson of war, death and the yearning for peace. Bausch is the least sentimental of writers. His style in Peace is as raw and unrelenting as the freezing rain on the unnamed mountain. From the opening pages there is an ominous sense of impending disaster. Even the flashbacks to peacetime feel hopelessly overwhelmed by the circumstances of the present. Marson, the only character whose inner life is available to us, expects to die, understands that dying is what he must do in order to be honorable. But why he must die is something he cannot understand. It's easy for us, eighty years on, to make sense of the war in Italy, to see the War itself as honorable, a "good war," but Bausch isn't having it. His novel puts us in the moment, and from the perspective of the daily suffering and the suffocation of fear, nothing seems heroic or reasonable or even remotely connected to honor. The whole ghastly business is a horror.  And peace? It's the thing you think about as you make your way uphill toward the enemy, as elusive as sunshine.

George Ovitt (4/16/18)