Write or Flight

The novel's abbreviated fourth and final section is pure lament for the fallen. The book's abiding image is of "Yasmina in the ditch," a young Franco-Algerian woman who returned to Algeria in 1994 with a Polish woman friend. When the latter was abducted by terrorists disguised as policemen, Yasmina gave her life in return for her friend's freedom.

Assia Djebar explores the secret language of women.
Assia Djebar explores the secret language of women.

Details

So Vast the Prison
By Assia Djebar, translated by Betsy Wing
Seven Stories Press, 363 pp., $24.95

So Vast the Prison is a book written over time, and the changing concerns of its author (and of her people) are evident in the reading. Ultimately, the first section sits uneasily alongside the rest, as if its very lyricism were an indulgence that rigorous acts of retrieval—the work of the rest of the novel—can ill afford. While it is not at first obvious why Djebar chose to include this first section, it acts almost as a wistful, but corrective, breath of nostalgia: as if to say there was a moment, not so long ago, when an Algerian writer had the luxury of lavishing such prose upon a mere love affair. A luxury that most novelists—in the West, at least—take for granted. Algeria's current moment is considerably more stark; but so, too, as the novel makes clear, have been many in its history, from Jugurtha's time onward. Through all these times, and even in the darkest hour, there has flourished a hidden language, a living language: a language that, in spite of her conflicting impulses, Assia Djebar will speak aloud.

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