For almost a decade, Algeria has been a nation in tumult, where intellectuals and liberals have been assassinated by fundamentalist terrorist squads, and entire villages massacred. This is not Algeria’s first undeclared war: The country was colonized by the French in 1830, and their war of independence, from 1954 to 1962, was also prolonged and brutal. While both French and Algerian authors have written about that conflict, little has been translated into English; and even less is available that can illuminate the contemporary Algerian experience.
In the West, Assia Djebar, a Berber, is the best known of Algeria’s literary daughters. She has written about her homeland since the late 1950s, focusing in particular on the lives and plights of women. So Vast the Prison once again tackles this subject, and, in this fine translation by Betsy Wing, provides a complex, fragmentary rumination upon themes of desire, language, loss. Written in stages—in 1988, 1991, and 1994—the book begins as an exploration of women’s desire and comes, progressively, albeit resistantly, to incorporate a sense of the terror that has, in recent years, stalked all Algerians. Toward the end, after describing the peaceful death, during prayer, of the narrator’s uncle, Djebar intercedes: “They are the men I want to write about—not the victims, not the murdered ones! Because behind each of the latter there are ten murderers, and I see, oh yes, I can make out the cascades of blood behind the one man, the one woman, assassinated today. I cannot. I do not want to. I want to run away. I want to erase myself. Erase my writing.”
This struggle between the need for language and the desire for oblivious silence pervades the book, whose narrator Isma is, like Djebar, a writer and filmmaker. She announces, in the novel’s opening line, that “For a long time I believed that writing meant dying, slowly dying”; and So Vast the Prison represents the narrator’s—and perhaps also the author’s—renunciation of that renunciation: In the very course of writing, Isma becomes a woman who will speak out even when she wants to run away, a woman who believes that “We think the dead are absent but, transformed into witnesses, they want to write through us,” and who asks, “How can one inscribe with blood that flows or has just finished flowing?” only to answer: “Writing, of course, even a novel . . . About flight. About shame.”
This novel is written in four parts, each strongly distinct. The first section, lyrical and interior, describes Isma’s initial, shameful flight from her first marriage, in the ’70s, after falling in love with a younger man whom she refers to only as “the Beloved.” Many years later, she recollects her growing obsession. Isma and the Beloved do not have an affair in any traditional sense; but in Algiers, even long before the current troubles, the very fact of their conversations is illicit. Eventually, Isma confesses to her husband, who beats her: “I see . . . again, the face of the husband twisted in hatred—suddenly I remember that he is from the city, where married women, even in a harmonious marriage or one, in any case, with no apparent conflict, secretly call any husband ‘the enemy.’ Women speaking among women.”
The language spoken by women among women is secret. Here, again, emerge the opposing impulses in Isma and her creator: to speak that language aloud and yet to keep it clandestine, that it might retain its force. The idea of a secret language is explored, too, through another facet of Djebar’s heritage: her identity as a Berber. The second section of the book turns back in time, providing—in clipped, almost jaunty, prose—a series of fascinating historical anecdotes surrounding a stele at Dougga with a bilingual inscription, and the various attempts that are made over centuries to decipher it. Ultimately it is revealed that the unknown script is Berber. Djebar then imagines the moment of the stele’s inscribing, in 138 B.C., and the defiance of the young Berber prince in attendance, Jugurtha—a noble whose unrecorded and ignominious death in a Roman prison she will also conjure at the novel’s end.
The novel’s third section alternates between chapters describing Isma’s filmmaking project (she is working on a semidocumentary film entitled Arable Woman) and chapters that unfurl the dramas of Isma’s family history, and in particular those of its women. In spite of the intellectual sophistication of the novel as a whole, these latter chapters are the book’s beating heart. We learn about Isma’s mother visiting her son, imprisoned by the French during the war of independence; about Isma’s extraordinary grandmother, married at 14 to “an old man, the city’s wealthiest man”; and we learn, finally, about Isma herself. For example, Isma recalls playing, as a child, with the daughters of a traditional caïd, or Algerian chief, girls whose upbringing was less Westernized than her own: “[N]o sooner would I find myself delivered to them in their house than, in a great state of excitement, they were immediately compelled to feel the satin slip I was wearing. . . . Because I went to school and was therefore disguised as a little French girl, they would have liked to caress, and feel through me, the whole body belonging to these distant ladies who seemed to them arrogant but so precious.”
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.
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.