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Interview: Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra

Algerian novelist Rachid Boudjedra is known for his sensitive disposition and unconventional mannerisms. A conversation with him always veers to controversies. Boudjedra is a multilingual writer, and although he mostly writes in French, it does not prevent him from addressing hot topics of the Arab world in his novels. He never hesitates to point out that he is the last communist in Algeria.

Critics postulate that Boudjedra’s fiction is written in a difficult, complex style, reminiscent of William Faulkner or Gabriel García Márquez in its intricacy.

“La Répudiation” (“The Repudiation”) brought him widespread attention, for the strength with which he challenged traditional Muslim culture in Algeria. As the result of a fatwa issued against him, calling for his death, he felt compelled to live outside Algeria. Despite this he is routinely referred to as the greatest living North African writer.

Over a period of 50 years, he has published about 30 books and novels, experimenting with all kinds of literary genres. His works have been translated into 42 languages. Boudjedra himself speaks eight languages, including ancient Latin, and has used his skills to translate 18 of his own works.

Since publishing his first novel, “The Repudiation”, in 1969, he transcended the Algerian traditional novel, which held an important position after the pioneers’ generation.

He has written books and novels about colonialism and taboo subjects that defied traditional society. Boudjedra began writing in French, but did not forget Arabic.

He was angry as usual when I met him in Abu Dhabi, repeating: “We must find an alternative to the rigid intellectual moulds and ideals that hinder the creative process in the Arab world.” Excerpts from an interview:

Can you still be likened to the character you portrayed in your famous novel, “The Obstinate Snail”?

[Laughs] Of course, even more obstinate, do you see what is happening in the Arab world?

Are you referring to the Arab Spring revolutions?

I consider them to be disappointments. By the way, I have finished writing my new novel titled “Frost of Spring” about these revolutions.

Do you doubt these revolutions?

Yes. I do not agree with the term “Arab Spring”. I will release “Frost of Spring” in Arabic and French, edited by Dar Barzakin and by Grasset Editions, respectively. My novel focuses on the Arab Spring and the rebellion against the secularism trend, which was heightened further than it has ever been before.

What do you think caused the people in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria to come to the streets?

I think it was a combination of the unemployment situation, and the absence of freedom of expression in the Arab world. While these revolutions did bring about some changes in securing freedom, in the big picture, they did not propagate the change that was required. Having said that, they were necessary; perhaps the Arab world needs a number of successive revolutions to make this change.

You have written this novel in both Arabic and French, which is interesting given that in an earlier interview you mentioned that Arab publishing was in decline.

I write, as you know, in both languages. I returned to writing in Arabic as, for me, it is simply instinctive. I have been writing in French since 1969, from then on I have felt a kind of guilt and nostalgia for the Arabic language; this sensation constantly haunts me. My relationship with the Arabic language is a mystical one, a story of eternal love and emotions. No doubt that the transition to writing in Arabic again, finally after a long journey, is the result of psychological pressure. When I write in French I live a kind of neurosis.

You once mentioned that the Arabic language is sacred.

This is true. I consider the Quran to be the most glorious and finest texts of all. In my new book, the story is fun and provides entertainment, its ambiguity makes it different from a political text which is clear, and the confusion gives the novel this artistic element that fascinates the readers, allowing them to escape from the realities of their lives. I do not think that there is an identity crisis in the Arab world, but there is definitely a political crisis.

Your literary works primarily focus on Algeria. Did you ever try to get out of your country?

Never. I do not have any emotional enthusiasm to write about anything other than Algeria. When I write about Algeria, I write about the human being. My characters are universal and my subjects are linked to a great history that can affect any reader. I relate stories and anecdotes, which is the essence of my novels, and I talk about destinies and tormented figures.

In the novel “St. George Hotel” you talk about the past with its diversified details. Why do you so often insist on referring to history?

I would like to point out that this work is one of my first narrative novels, which does not carry a message, and there is no political or social opinion. It is an accumulation of memories and feelings from the past. I tried in this novel to talk about the “other” things after having dealt with the revolution in my novel “Dismantle”.

What problems did you face in writing this novel, or previous ones, in both Arabic and French?

“St. George Hotel” increased my nostalgia for my native language. However, we must be fair, as I have used French in my creations in the past. I stopped writing in Arabic in 1994, after my novel “Timimoun” was refused by all the publishing houses in Algeria. It was also rejected by the big publishers in Beirut. They forced me to write in French. In my attitude, I did not mean to seek revenge on Arabic; it has a special place in my heart and I am proud of it. Arabic is still my mother tongue and I make sure to write in Arabic as it is an amazing language when it comes to composition.

Do you believe in writing more realistically, or do you tend to try using modernity and experimentation? Which writing style best applies to your latest novel?

My novel “St. George Hotel” was written in a realistic style, which is more Western. This style is being emulated by many other writers such as Naguib Mahfouz and Elias Khoury. What I would like to do is modernise the Arabic novel. I am not sure how it would be received if I were to make changes to the Arabic novel, given the problems we face when it comes to awareness, openness and integrity. However, I still aspire to change the present way of thinking.

Do the novels that you write have to have a political or social context?

I have never written a political or historical novel. What concerns me in the script is the metaphysical aspect and not the subject. I have a double culture, which gives my pen a special poetic context in contrast to the French, who do not talk about their ancestors. I have many ancestors including Ibn Khaldun and other pioneers of our modern history.

How do you describe your experience in script writing? Is it like writing a novel?

In my experience, I have found that writing fiction is actually cinematic in nature. I have written the screenplays and dialogues for a number of well-known films; you may be familiar with one of my works, “Chronique des années de braise” (“Chronicle of the Years of Fire”), directed by Mohammad Lakhdar-Hamina, which, in 1975, won the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Do you live off the money you earn from your books?

Novels are very popular nowadays. Perhaps I am the only Arab writer who lives off his novels. I sold about a million copies of my book “1001 Years of Nostalgia” and sold 500,000 copies of “The Obstinate Snail”. My novels have been translated into 42 languages, including five million copies in Chinese. I receive regular payments from the French publishing houses and their foreign translations. The same, however, cannot be said about my Arabic editions.

Who are your favourite writers?

I enjoy reading the works of Adonis, Kateb Yassin, Mohammad Khairddin and others. I re-read their works constantly, in particular Adonis’s “The Fixed and Variable”, which is considered to be an essential reference book on the Arab culture.

Shakir Noori is a Dubai-based journalist and author.

Rachid Boudjedra, born on September 5, 1941, in Ain Beida, Algeria, is a poet, novelist, playwright and critic. Boudjedra wrote in French from 1965 to 1981, at which point he switched to writing in Arabic, often translating his own works back and forth between the two languages.

Boudjedra returned to writing in French in 1992 and has continued to do so ever since.

Educated in Constantine and at Tunis’s Collège Sadiki, Boudjedra later fought for the FLN (the National Liberation Front) during the Algerian War of Independence. He received his degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne, where he wrote a thesis on Céline. Upon receiving his degree, he returned to Algeria to teach, but was sentenced to two years in prison for his criticisms of the government and sent to Blida, Algeria. He lived in France from 1969 until 1972, and then in Rabat, Morocco, until 1975.

Boudjedra was awarded the Prix du Roman Arabe in 2010 for “The Barbary Figs”. Many of his novels have been translated to English, including “Les Funérailles”, “The Barbary Figs”, “The Obstinate Snail” and others.