A pianist once explained that, with a score by Mozart, an ability to play the notes gets you only a tenth of the way toward being able to play the music, whereas with one by Liszt, the ability to play the notes gets you nine-tenths of the way toward playing the music. Kateb Yacine’s 1956 novel Nedjma is luxuriant and convoluted like Liszt, not deceptively simple like Mozart, but in my encounter with it I found myself in a position more like that of the amateur attempting Mozart: I read every word, but never felt I was more than a tenth of the way toward having read the novel. And yet not a page passed without my having the feeling that I was experiencing something great. The author’s ambition is tremendous: “to try all conceivable combinations to hold together the potential novel of a conceivable Algeria,” as he later put it. All of these spiraling possibilities — conceivabilities, potentialities — seem to swirl through the book at once. Kateb (he signs his books with his family name first, given name second) distributed the parts of his narrative, or rather his multiple narratives, not chronologically or even according to a subjective chain of associations, but through some numerical system I can’t quite follow — in other words, by a spatial arrangement that disrupts any temporal sequence. And yet a fundamental and seemingly unstoppable narrative force that seems to envelop every detail in a nimbus of resonances keeps the mystified reader turning page after page. This novel, which concerns four men who are all obsessed with a beautiful woman of mixed French and Algerian parentage but is fundamentally about how colonialism makes people outsiders in their own country, is formed out of the direct collision between storytelling — “experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth,” as Walter Benjamin once characterized it — and a modernity in which “experience has fallen in value.” It’s not unique in this. In retrospect, the 1950s through the mid-1970s were the great era of the unreadable novel. Nedjma was one of the first and most remarkable of these; it’s striking that many of the others were also rooted in places marginal to the European mainstream of the novel; I think in particular of works from Latin America, such as Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (1963) or José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966). In such works, the conflict between orality and the material manipulability of written texts, between what must be told and what can’t be told, is paramount. A year, now, into this Reader’s Diary, the encounter with Nedjma has made me wonder if there isn’t altogether too much reading go on; maybe I should be spending more time on this kind of unreading. But publishers ought to make that easier; someone should bring Nedjma back into print, and commission translations of Kateb’s other novel, Le polygone étoilé (1966) and his poetry too (judging from Bernard Aresu’s introduction to the 1991 republication of Richard Howard’s exceptional 1961 translation, these all sound like parts of a single intertwined work; his plays, of which one has so far been translated into English, may be something rather different).
Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma, translated by Richard Howard (1991) is published by the University Press of Virginia and and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...
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