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A letter to Assia Djebar.

Altaussee [Austria], 4 July 1996

Dear Assia,

Time and again I have been asked why I nominated you for the Neustadt Prize, but the answer to that question, considering your complex manner of writing, can only be a complex, multilayered one. I first came across you - actually I was pushed into you - when a representative of your Swiss publisher who recalled my earlier studies in Oriental languages and literatures sent me your book Fantasia. I leafed through it attempting to recognize Arabic expressions despite their francophone formulation. (Although my Arabic, which was always only "beginning-level," has long since trickled away in the flow of the years, I still like to play this little game.) Then I began to read, and with the very first page I fell under the spell of your "multiple fractured" language. I was greatly moved at how you constructed a monument to your father as "the giver of the language" in which you write. As indicated in the texts, he was a strict parent yet also one who took you by the hand and led you to school. My own father "fell" in Russia in 1943 (to use one of those euphemistic expressions for the various ways of dying in a war). I was two years old at the time and have no memory of him at all. But therefore I have never missed him either. Still, the way in which you speak of your Muslim father, who so lovingly planned your education, caused me to think about the father I never knew, just as if he had actually been lost to me.

And you, you who have received an inheritance from your father - namely, the French language and thereby a certain freedom - you had the courage, above all in your book Loin de Medine [Far from Medina], to speak of a very important subject, the daughters of Muslims and their rights to claim their inheritance, and for that alone you deserve every prize in the world. The clarity with which you diagnose the early splitting of Islam into the Sunni and Shi'a camps as a consequence of the denial of that inheritance should be the envy of many a Muslim theologian. They all speak of Ali; you speak of Fatima. It was a stroke of genius to give voice to the women around Mohammed and in Mohammed's day, to show who they were: warriors, poets, queens, noblewomen, and slaves, not merely Arab women from Mecca and Medina. In letting them speak, you rewrite the history of the origins of Muslim civilization and you quite rightly emphasize the fact that for young girls and women the Islamic revolution consisted in assuring them an inheritance, assuring them that they might receive from their fathers what was due them. But then Fatima, Mohammed's daughter, was robbed of this inheritance when she was not permitted to be "the scribe at his death" - that is, to serve as trustee of his spiritual inheritance. The consequences are well known, but I have never heard the cause (or at least one of the principal causes) called by name so clearly. For that you deserve full credit, Assia.

You appear not only to have examined your own inheritance in a critical light but also to have analyzed it precisely. "Thus the language that my father had been at such pains for me to learn [the French of your French-teacher father] serves as a go-between, and from now a double, contradictory sign reigns over my initiation," you state in Fantasia, and thus you make language itself the theme of your literature - namely, that "multiple fractured" language which you say in Le blanc de l'Algerie [The White of Algeria] "has inscribed itself incessantly in a linguistic triangle" consisting of Berber, Arabic, and French. You speak of the "language of power" which seeks to marginalize anything considered to be "other," as French did to Arabic at first, then Arabic did in turn to French when it became the narrowly construed "national language." You add two more "languages of power": Latin, which was an obligatory course of study at my gymnasium; and Turkish, which I later studied voluntarily and at several universities. But I would not wish to read your books in any of these "languages of power," Assia. Perhaps the German translations - which are all quite good - are for precisely that reason the most suitable means of conveying to me, line by line, the unsettling content of your works: that fundamental conflict which I know from early on, since I too write in an "elevated or literary language" quite different from the dialect of my childhood and from the colloquial speech of my native land.

The sentence in which you so aptly define this constellation demands to be quoted: "To attempt an autobiography using French words alone is to lend oneself to the vivisector's scalpel, revealing what lies beneath the skin. The flesh flakes off and with it, seemingly, the last shreds of the unwritten language of my childhood." And in your books the scabs fall away as well, along with the hastily applied bandages meant more to cover than to heal the wounds inflicted upon your land in the course of its history.

Therefore I can only marvel that you have taken it upon yourself to deal with history, with raw and unhealed history. For your incorruptible eye, which has enabled even me, who knows Algeria only through television, to understand something of what has occurred and is occurring in that country, is also scientifically trained. One notices that, and I find that one may take note of it. But by itself that still would not yield a portrait in which I as an outsider can recognize not only Algeria but rather the entire horrifying course of the world. Likely, the fact that your account - so full of love and passion but also of revulsion - sounds so completely unpartisan or unbiased has to do with that distance which French accords to you in respect to your country and its history. From the very beginning, that account inspired trust in me, trust as a reader, which means that one may submit oneself unreservedly to your view of things without later feeling one has been deceived or misled concerning the facts of the matter.

The fact that the language of your childhood, the language in which you feel, shines forth time and again between the lines of your text, not in the form of individual words but rather in the form of perceptions which must first be "translated" or transcribed, opens up an entirely new dimension for French. I notice a similar phenomenon among Turks who write in German, the offspring of the first generation of guest workers, most of whom were very young when they first came to our country. Their German is as good as that of anyone who has spent thirteen years in a German-language school, but there is more to it than that: a barely perceptible shift or displacement, which, when it is handled in masterly fashion, endows German with a completely new charm. Your art - forgive me for tossing you into a single pot with others in this regard, but the connection is very important to me - and also the art of many of your Turkish, Persian, and Arab colleagues, whether they now write in French or in German, lies in that evocation of the inexhaustible resources of a world not narrated in the language in which it is spoken, a world in which feelings are deeply rooted and from which one must escape in order to be able to recognize it. Just how narrow the connection to this original world still is can be seen in the empty spaces it leaves behind, spaces which stand out in the written language like large gleaming specks against a background of cultural and sociohistorical networks. In somewhat more concrete terms, this touching human warmth, the all-permeating sympathy, the precise and detailed depiction of all the violence, crime, and perfidy which, despite everything, never posits hatred as the unavoidable counterpole - that is what, it seems to me, shines forth from your early language.

The astonishment which erupts from the young girl for the first time in speech persists in more restrained form, permeates all your books, and infects me too as a reader. And not only the astonishment but also the affection, an affection that demands time, time to expose everything that has been buried, to inspect it, as you have done with the countless stories and faces of the women of your land, the mothers and grandmothers who "were already dead long before the grave." You have made their voices audible and stripped away their multiple veils, directed our attention to their humanity and let them narrate their fate from their own point of view. And for all the clarity with which you have recorded this scandalous history of confinement, masking, and imposed silence, you have always retained a certain tenderness for the "others" (contrary to tradition, let me for once designate men as the "others"), as your latest book, Le blanc de l'Algerie, proves, for there you urge upon us, your readers, all the Algerian writers who have been killed or have died from illnesses. Instead of polemicizing, you recount how things happened, you attempt to follow your friends down to their final moments, in loving sympathy and with the intention of turning them into objects of affection transcending their deaths. At the same time, you succeed so well in capturing the sheer monstrousness of this war which reerupts daily in your country that our eyes grow wide with horror. You also do not shy away from stealing into the minds of those who commit these atrocities, conveying their supposed arguments, rationales, and justifications, and showing the chain of violent acts that has made criminals of victims (and sometimes vice versa) to be a chain which binds the combattants to each other. I marvel at you for this as well.

In your works those young warriors who have strangled, stabbed, or shot to death your Algerian writer-colleagues and have considered themselves in the right in doing so talk among themselves in such a manner that one can imagine what goes on in their minds, even as one's outrage mounts, however senseless the deeds may appear and however perverted the logic of the arguments may be. They call themselves "God's Fools," an expression for madmen and mystics in early Islam, for those "from whom the pen had been taken away. Whose words and deeds the angel-scribes did not record, because the fools were not subject to the law and for them the duty of adhering to the law's precepts did not apply. (Go mad and let reason forsake you, said Leila to Madshnun. Then no one will harm you when you enter my village.)" Lokman Sarrakhsi was one of those fools of our Dear Lord, as were many others of whom the legends tell. But never executioners, who carried out judgments rendered by others.

That, then, is the list of themes which caused my interest in your work to become so strong; but it was not merely a matter of themes, as you yourself know only too well, not even when language itself is the theme. What attracted me to you most was your manner of treating those themes in your "fragmented language." (Incidentally, your narrative art is extremely refined, bathed in all the waters of the prose writer's art.) And I readily admit that this manner of yours stirs in me a delight that is not at all easy to allay - which means simply that I do not wish to stop reading you. I say you intentionally, for we are our books and ultimately write ourselves in an almost corporeal fashion, just as our language is always a physical, bodily thing, even in those moments when it appears most infused by the spirit or the intellect. It made me extremely happy, Assia, that I was at last able to make your personal acquaintance in Norman, and that we all danced together, and that Hanan al-Shaykh was present, and all the others as well. I hope that this prize makes you even more well known, and - what is likely more important - that it will afford you time, time "for the retreat of writing, in search of a language outside the languages," as you wished yourself at the end of Le blanc de l'Algerie.

I embrace you, Barbara

Translated from the German By William Riggan

BARABARA FRISCHMUTH studied Turkish, Hungarian, and Oriental languages and literatures at the Universities of Graz and Vienna from the early 1960s until 1976. She is the author of more than twenty books, beginning with the prose collection Die Klosterschule (1968; Eng. The Convent School) and including such highly praised works as the novels Die Mystifikationen der Sophie Silber (1976), Kopftanzer (Head-Dancer; 1984), and Einander Kind (Each Other's Child; 1990) and the short-story collections Haschen nach Wind (Straining After the Wind; 1974), Traumgrenze (Dream Border; 1983), and Hexenherz (Witch Heart; 1994).
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Title Annotation:Assia Djebar: 1996 Neustadt International Prize for Literature; Algerian writer
Author:Frischmuth, Barbara; Riggan, William
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Sep 22, 1996
Previous Article:Of pencil points and petty tyrants.
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