Saturday, 10 May 2014

A Crisis in Syntax - Algeria

If you imagined Language as a big Lego castle, you would see it was made of several blocks. Vocabulary would make up one lot. The arrangement of words ie Syntax another. The rules that organise words-strings - ie sentences - would give yet another shape called Grammar. Add hues for morphology and phonology and start building or deconstructing. Am not sure what's we'd put in the royal garden, perhaps poetry?

When I began looking into francophone Algerian detective-stories and francophone Algerian literature in general (I am still looking for works in the Algerian language but that's another subject...) I was looking for a particular kind of Lego castle arrangement. As I began investigating from abroad, the majority of works I found dated pre-90s, the libraries in London to which I had access had been supplied with books from Algeria up to a certain period, then supplies had clearly come to a halt to pick up later only with writers that boast international clout such as Waciny Laredj, Boualem Sansal, Assia Djebbar and the incontournable Khadra. I don't think the 90s Black Decade affected supplies, there seems to have been a cut in relations and interest that predated it or perhaps sealed it.

Now that I am in Algeria, I have had access to recently published works, between 2000 and today, and the gap between the texts what were published pre-90s and what gets published today is as remarkable as it is deep. What do I mean by gap and what do I mean by texts.

The Gap

I am not referring to a generation problem, most of the recent novels I've picked up are written by authors by no means young (I'm not an ageist...), these authors are in their 50s, or at the youngest 40s. And they're well oiled writers, most of them are active journalists familiar with the written world. Let me just tell you about francophone journalists in Algeria for a minute. The country is divided on the surface between two languages (I say on the surface because it is an unrepresentative and engineered division created to... divide, more on that perhaps elsewhere): French and Modern Standard Arabic.  University is the last stage in an education that academically revolves around these two language poles.  There is a formal branch of study at university for Journalism, and it is taught in Arabic. It includes Communication with subjects such as radio, etc. The francophone press does not recruit its journalists from that branch - not mostly anyway, every thing has an exception especially in Algeria - because they are after francophones with a solid mastery of the written word. To find such individuals, they go to graduates with a Bachelors in the French language, or a Bachelors in translation, or they go for graduates who come from a branch and speciality where study was done in French. Baccalaureat grades decide what a student will study. Students can indeed choose to 'downgrade', if a student has had a high Baccalaureat grade and is destined to study Medicine - the highest study status in the country - he or she can certainly choose to go for the lower rated Architecture studies instead, but a majority will follow where their grades take them. Language study doesn't require high grades, and so recruiting language students to work as journalists does not even ensure a good mastery of the language, it only ensures an academic level of the language. Meaning, if you know how to build grammatically correct sentences and have a wide vocabulary from 19th century French literature, it is assumed that you'll be a skilled journalist.

And... a wide and rich vocabulary and perfectly correct grammatical sentences is exactly what marks francophone literature published here, at least from what I gather of the works published since 2000 that I've read. Matters of Syntax, that is pure skill and style have disappeared from texts.

The texts 

You could think that the detective-novel style is a light one but when you read authors such as Benjamin Black aka John Banville, the poet, you realise what kind of literary-wonders authors can produce with this genre and through it.  What I have found striking in the DZ version of this genre is that the content, the ideas for stories are brilliant, but the style used is undergoing a massive crisis, when I compare it with what was produced only just 20 years ago. 

It is difficult to talk about literary style which is why I talk about syntax. Syntax, the way words are organised out of sheer instinct and skill or out of an author's conscious effort is the tangible aspect of style. The problem or the problematic lies at Syntax's door. Knowing how to make grammatically correct sentences is not enough to write a novel. It is enough to write a dissertation at school and it is in that category that I would put most of the books I have come across so far. I might be mean here and my criticism might just be the result of accidental reads and suffering from rotten luck when picking up books, but it has happened too often for me not to start making links with what is indeed affecting Algerian francophone literature generally speaking.

Writers have lost touch with building characters, their depth is paper thin. Description of events and surroundings is amazingly detailed and that is where the power of the author's hold on vocabulary is put to use, but the result is overworked and suffocates both the page and the imagination. There is no fluidity, going from one scene is a trial with no flow, ideas float but find no dharf zaman or dharf makan, vessels to be born out of. Space between building blocks finds no natural place. 

Word-strings - sentences - are exclusively built on Subject-Verb-Object-Complement, there is no variety, no play on elisions, deletions, no displacement, no preposing, no postposing, no word-order shuffling. Words march. Their cadence is military. The military is everywhere in Algeria, it is clicking its heals in between the lines. Have you noticed in journalistic articles in DZ how the Object is practically always placed first in titles and how pieces are built on the Object-Subject-Verb pattern or Object-Verb in the Passive-Indirect Subject structure? That is the cadence of francophone Algerian journalism. And just like its literary relative, it is frozen.

Diagnosis: words suffer from chronic placement. Words have become Lego blocks arranged only according to the poster in the Lego box. Copy-Paste. Copy Style-Paste.

BUT. That is not to say there aren't any wonderful authors out there, notably Chawki Amari who is becoming one of my favourite writers because he has loosened his word-order, under his pen, word units breathe, their order stretches and hugs its elements back. If it wasn't for the ink that sits them on a page, they would evaporate and go live freely in the many hues of blues that makes Algerian skies capture the many hues of Blues of Algerians living under them.

Publishing in Algeria

There must be few writers here who realise the luck they have of being an author in Algeria. Simply because publishing houses publish just about anything, certainly on the strength of friendships but also perhaps State funding means not worrying about profit, that is selling. And this, although it causes readers like me atrocious hours spent not giving up on an author, is really wonderful, to live in a place that will print you and distribute you no matter your talent is precious. Authors aren't all evil of course and one of their problems might also lie in the fact that there are no editors, no one to read and critically delete redundant parts, advise and restructure what needs to be reset.

Syntax Crisis and Famous-Five-maturity 

Is this syntax crisis a problem that the education system planted decades ago? A comparison with what is going on in Algerian literature produced in Arabic would have to be made and I won't be capable of reading in Arabic for some time.  If the education system is at the root of the text crisis in Algeria - an education system that makes people believe their language is a corruption, an approximate vehicle for communication called a dialect - then we would find a text crisis in literature produced in Arabic also, and wouldn't it be funny to find the exact opposite of what is going on in francophone lit: a fantastic style but wretched poor content and ideas.

Well, I'll let you do the reading in Arabic for now.
For the moment, and I say this with the authority that the torture of my readings affords me, we are stuck in a Famous Five novel style with all the maturity it involves.

Ombre 67 by Ahmed Gasmia – Book Review

Shadow 67 (Ombre 67) briefly begins in Algiers with two cousins who go to pick up their tourist visas to go to Paris and Madrid. Rashid is a scientist working for an international company and is taking his closest friend, his cousin Karim, with him on a week holiday. The next morning of their arrival in Paris, on their way to visit the Eiffel Tower, Rashid pales before a man he sees far away in the crowd and who advances towards him calling him Hassan. Panicked, Rashid hurries his cousin back to the hotel, and with no explanation forces him into a cab and orders him to return to Algiers, then disappears. Karim of course does not return home, makes his way back to their original hotel and begins to search for his disappeared cousin. After having alerted the French police, the Algerian Embassy in Paris and enrolling the help of a woman journalist looking for a scoop, he becomes embroiled in a case a lot more threatening than had at first appeared : the 11th century sect the Assassins has been resurrected.

Ahmed Gasmia is a journalist, the usual trade of published authors in Algeria, and writes fiction in French. This detective story makes for a light, fun read and is similar in vein to the novels of Mohamed Benayat, Khaled Mandi, and Abedlkader Hammouche, other detective-story writers.

There is no indication of who the publishing house is other than that harp-like logo, no presentation of the author or the book nor any summary at the back. You can find it at the small bookshop in front of Algiers' Great Post Office for 260DA.

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Abdelhamid Benhadouga - Le Vent du Sud - Book Review

Do you know Johnny Cash's song I hung my head? A man goes out to practice shooting, early one morning. Not paying particular attention to his surroundings, he fires into the distance and his bullet shoots a rider down. I always felt this song captures the fixed and unforgiving essence of doom, how one single moment, one single action, can make your entire life tip over, to merge the real and the nightmares. Perhaps we've all been at the threshold of such moments? Perhaps not. But it is the kind of texts that sends ice cold waves down one's spine (well mine), because it tells and foretells life's potential for horror. 

Abdelhamid Ben Hadouga's novel 'The South Wind' sends such shivers, only they will be burning, as burning as the guebli-wind.

The story is set post-independence (the novel was published in 1971) and the Algerian government is about to implement its land redistribution plan. Nafissa, a young university student, returns to her home village for the holidays. As soon as she is home, she begins to miss Algiers and her student life there. Everyday spent locked up in her home makes her feel more contempt and scorn for what she sees as a suffocating patriarchal society, one that forces women into the role of mere obedient puppets at best. She begins to loath her mother Kheira, and to decides to renegade against her wealthy landowner of a father Belkadi whom she overhears telling her mum he has decided to marry her off, Nafissa, to the Mayor. This mayor is the former fiancé of Nafissa's now dead-sister. Whether Nafissa likes it or not, whether Kheira likes it or not, Belkadi has decided, and besides, these women's likes or dislikes are not even a consideration. Nafissa's naïve attempt at an escape tips her life over, and that of two others, into a dark and petrifying end. "And all for no reason" as Johnny Cash sings.

While this was written in the late 60s and describes what I imagine to be the mentality, partially, of this decade and the previous one, it perfectly mirrors my current experience in Algeria so far. I wonder how deeply anchored the mentality and the clash that BenHadouga describes, but still today, I've met his description of men's and women's condition and beliefs and it is as live and kicking as a new born baby vampire. What I'm pretty certain of is that the village-city or village-capital separation no longer applies, perhaps because the composition of Algiers and large cities have changed.

Abdelhamid Ben Hadouga was a prolific Algerian writer, born in 1925, who wrote in Arabic. He is one of the most important figures of the Algerian novel and of Algerian literature, with Mohammed Dib. SNED editions translated him into French in 1978. Ben Hadouga passed away in 2012, Waciny Laredj wrote his obituary here. You can find a very good synopsis of TheSouth Wind here. If you're in Algiers you can find Ben Handouga's South Wind at Kalimat Library for 650DA.