|BOOK REVIEW BY JEAN-MARIE VOLET|
Yolande Aline Helm
Malika Mokeddem : envers et contre tout
[Malika Mokeddem : against all odds]
|Paris: L'Harmattan, 2000. 270p. ISBN 2-7384-9860-4|
(Collection of essays written in French on Algerian woman writer Malika Mokeddem.)
A descendent of Saharan nomads, Malika Mokeddem left Algeria in the 1970s to follow her medical studies in Montpellier, in France. Upon completing her specialisation, she became a doctor in the South of France and began writing an autobiographic novel "in betwen patients". The success of this and subsequent novels led her to scale down her medical activities and to become a fulltime writer. The assassination of scores of intellectuals in Algeria, including many of her friends as well as threats against her own life, influenced her writing in the 1990s. It is only towards the end of the decade that she moved away from the horror of war toward some kind of reconciliation with life.
The volume begins with a short introduction presenting Malika Mokeddem and the seventeen studies of her work by a variety of women literary scholars. Yolande Helm's interview of Malika Mokeddem deals with issues such as characters identities, linguistic metissage, Algerian humour and the condition of women in contemporary Algeria.
The sympathetic "portrait" of the author that follows (pp.21-37) bears witness to Mokeddem's success, not only among Algerian women readers at large. This success is apparent from the following essays that are unanimous in unstinted praise of the author and her novels.
Lucy Stone McNeece's study introduces the reader to an issue that will be a theme recurring in almost every article, i.e., the meaning of the desert in Mokeddem's writing. Western fascination for the Sahara has led to a long tradition of European writings, but it is only recently that the insiders' points-of-view have found their way from orality to writing. The reading of signs, McNeece says, is not universal and the desert can be a screen or a mirror, thus it behoves the readers to go beyond their own cultural prescription in order to understand "Other" and find what lies within themselves.
The desert is of central importance to Michelle Bacholle as well . She argues that this notion underpins Mokeddem's "nomadic writing" ; that it is a way to escape to another world and freedom, but also a path towards danger and death when people stop considering desert as a transition and take it as a final destination.
Mildred Mortimer also stresses this fascination for the desert that evokes at the same time a re-appropriation by the author of her own tradition, roots, imaginary world and freedom, and a dangerous space that can isolate - and even kill - the individual. According to Mortimer, the desert, being the real Sahara or an imaginary space, figures in all of Mokeddem's novels and its meaning "varies like the shifting dunes of the Sahara", representing both a closed and an open space.
Tackling the same issue from a slightly different angle, Marie Naudin puts the emphasis on the ill-defined limits and contradictory spaces that overlap, both in the desert and in Mokeddem's characters who are located at an intermediary space, between two poles. For her, the desert becomes a metaphor for the author's and her character's internal space.
This concept of an "in between" reminiscent of Bhabha's "third space" is also central in Pierrette Frickey's article, altough she does not mention the latter critic but instead Bachelard's work. According to her, Mokeddem does not belong to Algeria or France but rather to that space "at the intersection of complementarity"(p.123). Like the protagonists of her novels, she has to find her own space and to take refuge in a closed space full of contradictions.
In her analysis of Le Siècle des sauterelles, Marta Segarra develops further the overlap of contradictory notions such as "the bestiality of human" and "the humanity of the beast"; assimilation and exclusion ; imagination and conformity ; writing and orality, etc. People mentioned in the novel, Segarra argues, live at the intersection of these unmitigated dichotomies and that makes them into ambiguous and contradictory characters.
The construction of a new space is the product of "deterritorialisation" that, according to Valérie Orlando is one of the major themes of Mokeddem's novels, especially L'Interdite [The Forbidden Women]. Moving outside their own territory leads Mokeddem's characters - and the author - to assume a new role in society and to promote a new feminine expression. Orlando argues that crossing boundaries and resistance are full of dangers but they are necessary in a socio-cultural and political space that can only change under the pressure of the women themselves.
Susan Ireland analyses Mokeddem's evolution and concerns evident in her fifth novel, La Nuit de la lézarde, arguing that it shows a shift from a cry of desperation to "something more serene" (p.131). However, like the characters of Mokeddem's previous stories, the protagonist of this particular novel develops a close association with the desert which provides her with both inspiration and challenges, representing at the same time an open space and a Garden of Eden sinking into the sand, light and darkness.
Annette Crouzière-Ingenthon's article analyses Les Hommes qui marchent. This novel evokes three generations of Algerian women telling their story, which is, in Crouzière's words, that of " the emancipation of the nomadic woman"(p.142). Solidarity between women grows stronger as men - French military in earlier times, fanatical Muslim brothers later on - conspire to oppress the Algerian womenfolk. Storytelling, and later writing, play a big part in the emancipation process and allow the individual to affirm her independence and, paradoxically, to fight at the same time for the group, its roots, nomadic memory and women's solidarity.
Nicole Aas-Rouxparis's perceptive article attemps to explore Mokeddem's inner soul in the context of the paintings hanging in the house of L'Interdite's main character, or rather in the house of her deceased friend where she stays for a few days upon returning to Algeria after an absence of fifteen years. To Aas-Rouxparis, the details provided by Mokeddem are not mere"effets de réel" but narrative clues of a deep symbolic nature that pay tribute to progressive Algerian artistes and intellectuals - especially Kateb Yacine - and contextualize the march toward the future of the main characters.
Children, the loss of innocence and the perversion of a system that consider women as mere reproductive machines are amongst the main themes addressed by Isabelle Gros in her study. In the face of overly large families, children are cut off from the affection of their parents who have precious little time to spend with them. This is especially so for girls who have none of the privileges bestowed upon boys and who see their childhood male friends disappear into oblivion or lose their sensibility as they grow into adulthood.
McNeece's article saw the desert as a sign to be interpreted in context. Christiane Chaulet-Achour's article suggests the same with regard to the body that is open to interrogation and deciphering. From the Grandmother's tattoos to her granddaughter's skin-color, together with the voice of various characters, physical traits are signs that are being used by the characters themselves - and readers - to move between diverse languages and cultural universes.
Mokeddem trained as a doctor and her relationship to the medical profession is best understood in the context of women's condition in Algeria. Christine Renaudin argues in a fascinating piece that literature and medicine are two sides of the same coin. They provide the author with a way to reach for independence without sacrificing her roots. In this regard, comment by Mokeddem in relation to her patients is telling: "I have been taking care of them, perhaps; they have taken care of me, for sure"(p.215). Nevertheless, the power, status and respect associated with both doctors and celebrated writers, are not enough to resolve an underlying oppression of women. Furthermore, success comes at the price of "deterritorialisation" and for Mokeddem, exile. "The gangrene of mentality"(p.221) remains a sore in women's lives and there is only so much that medicine or literature can do to relieve society of its hurts.
The final piece by fellow Algerian writer Ghania Hammadou stresses in an elegant analysis of Mokeddem's work that "One has to move along in order to survive"(p.229). Mokeddem's women characters refuse to give in. They fight and escape their prison but no flight, she says, can erase the spectres and traumas of the past. Rather they create new challenges and new hurdles to jump. Wider Algerian violence in the 1990s has added a layer of inhumanity to the violence made against Algerian women and Mokeddem's writing represents, as Hammadou suggests, a cry of revolt, a search for roots and a vision for the future that gives women a voice.
There is no doubt that this volume is an excellent collection of essays and its short-comings are only very minor : there is no listing of Mokeddem's novels in French or in translation and the book doesn't include dissenting or male voices. But it would be a mistake to make too much of these minute criticisms of a book so very much worth reading. It should convince both the intellectuals and the (American) public at large that The Forbidden Women (University of Nebraska Press, 1998) and other novels by Malika Mokeddem - including her latest title N'zid (2001) - are a source of knowledge that definitely should not be missed.