Assia Djebar's Children of the New World (Enfants du nouveau monde, translated from French by Marjolijn de Jager) is one of those deceptively simple reads, where once you begin thinking more about it and reading about it you realize just how much thought went into its construction. It's a story of not only historical and political significance but one that looks at gender roles, particularly women's roles in the Islamic world. Saying that, I think too, I might still be reducing it to simplistic generalizations. After reading the lengthy afterword in the Feminist Press edition, I wish I had read it first as it was hugely illuminating, though I fear the setting is a part of the world I know very little bit about and am not going to be able to unscramble all the meaning that can be read into the story.
The story takes place over the course of a single day in a small Algerian town set against the mountains where the people of the country are struggling to throw off French Colonial rule. It's the mid-1950s and there is a sense of hopefulness that this is the beginning of not only a new world for Algerians but for women as well. Along with hopefulness, however, there is violence and bloodshed. It's not just an outright struggle against the French, but loyalties are divided and sometimes it's a fight between siblings ending in tragedy.
In the opening chapter an old woman is killed by shrapnel from a bomb--a purely random act of violence, and one that actually happened and was told to Djebar by her mother-in-law. It's meant to symbolize the "war's senseless cruelty, which could reach everywhere and everyone, even the most feeble." In nine chapters that are linked together forming a somewhat linear narrative (when I first started reading I thought it was a novel made up of short stories) the story is told through different perspectives, both male and female. The action in each chapter revolves around a particular character, and the characters are mostly related in some way--husbands and wives, friends, siblings giving a broad overview of the town and the day's events, yet it's also all tightly controlled and interconnected. By the end Djebar has painted a broad canvas with a cast of many characters.
The war is in the background, as the fighting is always off on the mountainside. Yet the war is always tangible in other ways. There is constant talk of what is happening up in the mountains and many characters are marked not by their presence but their absence as they have joined the rebels. And then there are those who are suspected of having a connection with them who have been carted off to jail where they are being not just questioned but tortured with the desire they will give away information. Not just men but women, too. No one is immune from the war. There is the woman who has been westernized and fraternizes with the colonizers who angers and disgusts her neighbors and the women whose husbands have gone off to fight. And even a few women who hope to aid in the struggle themselves.
Every segment of society is seemingly present in this novel. It's an interesting portrait of a time and place and Djebar shows the complexity of a colonial country--the interconnectedness and wish for independence. Algerians and French move between the two countries often, for work or education, and there are ties between the two. She also shows society in flux.
I'm not entirely sure I was visualizing it all accurately. Some women were veiled yet others not. In one harrowing scene a pious Muslim woman goes in search of her husband hoping to warn him as she hears he is in danger of having been informed on. Veiled and cloistered she is not even sure how to find his workplace and a dash across the city to find him is made almost worse as she is covered head to foot. Rather then feel inconspicuous she is harassed. And another woman who I imagine is completely westernized fares no better since she is denigrated for having adopted a more Western lifestyle and for socializing with the French.
The story is heavily nuanced--not only are there the political and social aspects of the story, the reasons for the revolution--history and the limitations and failures of colonialism that play out in the text, but there is the translation. Subtleties in the original French with obvious linguistic clues are lost when translated into English. Also, Djebar has a particular writing style that must have been a challenge to translate. Djebar has quite an extensive oeuvre and she is a poet as well. She was also influenced by her mother's language, Berber.
I'm sure I didn't get out of this book all I could have (and fear I am conveying to you what it was all about, even less so), but I am happy to have been exposed to Assia Dejbar, who I have read is considered one of the most distinguished and important writers to come out of the contemporary Arab world (though I believe she only writes in French). Her name has been bandied about as a possible contender for the Nobel Prize even. This is one of her earlier books (it sounds as though later work is far superior) and one well worth investigating. It's always good to be exposed to (new to me) good authors. And this is, too, perhaps my first foray into Colonial Literature, which I am curious to learn more about.
I read Children of the New World for Caroline's Literature and War Readalong. You can read her thoughts on the book here. Next up is Philippe Claudel's Grey Souls (an author I have long wanted to read). I'll be moving back into a more familiar area as the setting for the next book is WWI France. I'm really looking forward to it.