The Chrysalis is a novel by Algerian novelist Aïcha Lemsine. The English version was translated from the French La Chrysalide by Dorothy S. Blair who has done a splendid job, at no point did I sense this was a translation apart from the use of "old chum" that I cannot imagine any North African using in English to convey something like mon cher. It was published in 1976 in French by Editions des femmes and picked up by Quartet books who published it in English in 1993.
In the English version, the book opens with an Introdution penned by the author dated 1993, at a time when the situation had seriously deteriorated in Algeria. In this intro, Lemsine has an amusing little rant: "Exposing the archaic condition of women at the time of Socialism in Algeria was not without risk... In fact, while readers and critics in Tunisia, Morocco and Europe were almost unanimous in their enthusiastic welcome of the Chrysalis, in Algeria the book was banned and subjected to the destructive condemnation of certain so-called left-wing intellectuals, in the service of the regime." [my emphasis] At this point, I should tell you that Aisha Lemsine is the spouse of an Algerian diplomat. But this point raised by the author got me thinking further on the fiction's relationship with facts. What was Lemsine's intention before grabbing her pen? Was it to weave a fiction (inspired by facts as any fiction is) to express her own views through her craft about a situation she found both outrageous and inspiring. Or was it to use fiction as a very light cloak to denounce a factual situation. If the latter weighed more, then this book would not be fiction but a historical analysis. I am certain though, that it is fiction I read.
In this intro, Lemsine explains her title choice. Why the Chrysalis? It is not at all obvious in the story. She explains that the symbolim "is to be found in the struggle for life attached to the chrysalis's efforts to emerge from the darkness of its cocoon.... the essential thing is this sublime impetus towards freedom and light." The Chrysalis being the Algerian woman.
The novel recounts the story of a family over three generations. It is a small book though, a mere 175 pages to tell the life of an entire family before, during and post-war in Algeria up to the mid-70s. But the aim seems to lay elsewhere, that of telling the evolving social condition of the Algerian woman, and her rights or lack thereof, during these three cornerstone eras.
I liked Lemsine's style (in translation at least), I must check her out in French. She weaves a story with a fluid, easy language; the rhythm is natural and engaging throughout. The first third of the story was very compelling.
The story begins with the description of a woman's scream lasting two pages. A wretched scream, from the depths of sorrow, a scream of anger, of despair, of rebellion. Of revolution. As it starts echoing throw the lines, we discover that it belongs to Khadidja who is turning towards the past jsut as we are turning the page opening the family saga: "A whole past emerged from the depths of time, recalling a story, similar to thousands of others that form the landmarks for society, and what traditions, deformed by men, had made of these stories."
So far so brilliant. The story of Khadidja unfolds. She is married at 16 to a man she had never seen, comes to live in a far away village in her husband's family home with her mother-in-law, and three sisters-in-law. Luckily Mokrane her spouse is deeply in love with her and she him but Khadidja will come to face a village-woman's lot: polygamy, sterility, oppressive traditions which relegate a woman's say to naught.
You get the picture.
Past the first third of the book, the dimension of the characters becomes too caricatual. There are too many characters for less than 200 pages and when the focus' changes from Khadikja to her husband's daughter, the rhythm feels broken. A great deal of calamities strike Khadidja and Si Mokrane's family, following each other too closely and the story became stretched. But this is romance, with a much eau de rose (rose water).
It is then that I realised what I actually had in my hands: possibly the first Algerian modern romance writer!
Aïcha Lemsine aka Aïcha Laidi is an Algerian novelist born in 1942. She writes in French.
She continues writing through her blog here : http://www.litanie-de-la-mer.blogspot.co.uk/.
She published two other books after The Chrysalis: one in 1978, Porphyry Skies (Ciel de porphyre) and in 1983, The Voices's Trial by Ordeal (Ordalie des voix). She has been translated in English and Arabic (also in Spanish I am told).