In death, Tahar Djaout proved himself a prophet. Shortly after Islamic fundamentalists assassinated the 39-year-old Algerian writer in 1993, The Last Summer of Reason, his novel about a country engulfed by religious fanaticism, was published. Djaout’s death, the first in a campaign of terror against Algerian intellectuals, marked the start of a violent conflict between Islamicists and an embittered government holding onto democracy by force. But just a few years earlier, when the tremors of crisis were still nascent, Djaout’s writing reflected concerns. The menace in The Watchers, his newly translated 1991 novel, isn’t the militancy of extremists, but rather the more insidious terrors of a pervasive, myopic bureaucracy.
Set in North Africa, Djaout’s sparse and unyielding fable traces a country’s passage from revolutionary zeal into a fumbling social order. Here, a veteran of the independence wars and an inventor live in precarious suburban proximity: one man inculcated in suspicion and self-defense, the other in creativity and experimentation. Mahfoudh, an engineering professor, has modernized the loom in hopes of reviving a traditional craft (and income source). But his distrustful neighbor traps him in a bureaucratic netherworld of paperwork, proper stamps, illicit payments, and impromptu interrogations. In Djaout’s tale these delays reflect a larger epidemic. The updated loom binds tradition with future development, paying homage to “the women who for centuries have labored to weave together our well-being, our memory, and our everlasting symbols.” The small-minded officials’ inability to recognize these implications exposes a dangerously corroded society.
Although Djaout often sacrifices character and plot for a political message, he seduces with landscapes. He savors a child’s memory of “the lullaby of the rain. The wind’s savage games between dry stone walls. The frost clinging to naked branches,” reserving his wrath for the “fake rural features” and indiscriminate growth of the suburbs. Residences pile atop one another, buildings sprout new floors, and stores change character day to day. Spurred on by avarice, the countryside develops, prompting Djaout to warn, presciently: “The region, so vulnerable to earthquakes, may one day shake its broad back like a whale and swallow these temples of mediocrity that crystallize the aspirations of grocers.”
In Algeria, such reckless growth would become a catalyst for fundamentalism. In the delicate and decisive moment before this happens, the inventor is vital. To “a nation of frantic consumers,” he offers “effort, patience, genius, and disinterestedness.” Djaout understood this; so did his assassins.