One of the problems last summer, working on completing the Maghreb anthology (forthcoming in November, details here), was to find work by Mourad Bourboune, an Algerian writer I had heard of but never read as the work had been out of print for years. The book Habib & I were looking for was called Le Muezzin, a near-mythological novel that is also & at the same time the author’s good-bye to the Algerian post-independence vision of the Revolution and to literature as such, as he abandoned all literary activity after writing it. It was published in 1968 by Christian Bourgois Editeur & so I went to see Dominique Bourgois, Christian’s widow & the head of that amazing independent publishing house, where I was lucky enough to publish my first books of translations back in the early 70s. Though not one copy remained even in the publisher’s own archives, Dominique Bourgois was able to locate one inside a few days & send it on to me. It was a great read — though a difficult pick for the few pages I needed for the anthology. But here they are, proof-read this morning, a powerful piece of writing, formally inventive & pushing the limits of traditional French prose — the language Kateb Yacine had said the Algerians would keep as booty for having won the war…
from : THE MUEZZIN
They leave, return, leave each other, find each other again — I go up to the home place — I go down to France and in the caves, the attics, they pile up, fifteen, twenty. All day long they build, rebuild houses for the others, their own always threatens collapse. In the meantime. The construction site, the factory, the assembly line and the lovely life to come, later, and that will have to be lived. In the future. The salary that travels via money order, what remains of it on the counter of the owner of the café-bar-hotel-restaurant-cave. “I’m paying a week in advance and I’m offering you a drink.” Better to make sure of the fetid friendship of the owner who, some day, will give credit: in the future. They live one upon the other, the brain inhabited by the bosses; they never agree, for proof: they pay their contributions in contradiction. Unskilled laborer, skilled workman, foreman, number. “You can write me a letter: tell her I miss her a lot — bezef.”
Huge bag of quivering flesh under the spur of the tracts. Evenings, under the badly closing transom, sitting around the low table, they watch in a daze as the cards slide through the fingers of the dealer. In the corner the man from the South makes tea. Debris of dreams, cards put down on table, cigarette butt passed around, smoke. “I’m letting my mustache grow, I’ll shave it on the great day, I swear.” They found fatherlands from far away. They reside in the Elsewhere. They wait. Brahim speaks of the eternal value of the Quran while enjoying a glass of red and two franks: the violent faith of apostasy. “When it comes, the great day, let’s hope there’ll be a little of us left.” The Muezzin said it. The Muezzin repeats himself, enough to lose his voice.
What about that tea? Ready?
If you’re in a hurry, just go across the street to the café, answers the man from the South, disturbed in his ritual. I don’t do vague imitations. It’s either tea or it’s nothing.
Belote. Do you really think he’s returned?
The Muezzin, who else!
So what! Returned or not, what does it matter? You’re all the same: always one prophet ahead.
I was just saying. Belote again.
Don’t worry about it, he’ll go get an armchair like all the others.
Not him, said the man from the South.
The tea hisses softly.
All the same.
Even dead, come back, Muezzin. There’ll always be victims. When you point a gun there’s always some idiot that steps right up into the crosshairs.
I will not come back from Prague again with a bouquet of mimosas bought at Orly: “Look, Kittance, over there it’s already spring.” Bad. I’m a deep infidel. A deep sick man: the doctor said so. She could not understand that with this bouquet lyingly called Pragueian, I no longer had the impression of returning from Czechoslovakia. I felt frustrated.
To sum up, said the dealer, before you believed too much and now not enough. What is it you really want.
I agree with you, said the man from the South, if the Muezzin comes back all will change.
You are in question, Muezzin, you’ll have to exhaust all the verdicts. She said: “Of course you can do whatever you want, but it’s not a life to always wait, wait, without knowing what for. And you who don’t even know what you’ll do tomorrow.” We were making love cleanly. “Yes, tomorrow I’m off to the provinces.” I woke up early, malcontent, packages, contacts, hideouts… And Rachid who said: “It’s enough to drive you crazy… It will leave sequels.” The asylum, puking oneself. “How do you live, said the doctor, how do you do it, how do you live?” In the old days I had grand dreams, pure, milky and, waking up, I’d tell myself: some day… provided that… In crisis moments she’d lose herself in my nicknames, mix up my nom de guerre’s: Albert, Abdallah, Luc, Saïd, I’d see shadows parade by whose only support I was. I’d start doubting my own identity.
Twenty, thirty years of good and loyal services, helmet on head, digging up Paris asphalt, or straining backs on assembly line, they return feet first (the Phrothers chip in to pay for the last journey) to the promised Land.
You shouldn’t leave, shouldn’t return: but stay lying down in a perfect horizontal; sedimentary — strata. The earth would move for me. It would take charge of movement, no more things, no more room. To stay between the departure and the arrival, gaping hole I’d furnish with my ecstatic poses, while waiting for the irremissible dispossession. A seismic, vegetal season would split the earth with a solar indentation, the wadis would no longer be thirsty and the four cardinal points would be dismantled. A disgusted Anti-Atlas would put down its load and say: “I’m fed up with minimum salary and with cooperation, I’ve had it with waiting in vain for the great break of the axis, your bankruptcy, your fears and your kowtowing have exhausted my pagan patience.” Reptation of the dunes toward the sea, sudden looming up of sandy spines between the fingers of the dead, the concrete that crumbles and the tribe that comes running, coming in for the kill to put an end to your reptilian swarming. You’ll croak. The city too will croak and then the Great Book of Pains will come and it will write itself in epileptic ink.
To accept, wait, not leave, not endure, I will only endure the apocalypse and elementary truths.
The cemetery of El Alia will sputter under the greasy liquefaction of your bodies, a new avenue will grow there, digesting your solidified pukings, breaking down the dead-end lanes, and all around, the true city, the venomous city, will grow like a mushroom until the hour when the sea will come to wash it all.
I tell myself: I can no longer push back the struggle, the struggle against the city. My overseas city, pock-marked with casbahs, hooped with its water-tight nationalism, dominated by its muezzins who cast lubricious glances over the terraces where the moorish women slump for a suntan in defiance of the harem. My city that starts on Place de la République, in Nanterre, where a brother wearing a tie asks me for direction toward the closest Pari Mutual betting office.
All this mass of fallen rocks… The City… The City… it harasses me.
I’m afraid of it, in one fell swoop my blood rushed back, I’m betrayed inside. No longer to push back the struggle. Let’s redouble our vigilance, draw up a plan so as not to follow it. Beware of your left hand. The enemy: all, and all of me. Just as well not think it over and charge. I’ll invent myself a traitor to be immolated before the prophecy. To the people I’ll give ruin, which it will refuse, the Great Book, which it doesn’t expect, a formidable compass: the anti-Quran. I’ll announce the basement where, under the double horn of the moorish crescent and the aegis of the Black Stone with the Saudi title, the semi-liberations that bend the forehead to the earth and make the mosques land on their feet will be distilled. Later, after the crossing of the desert, will will pass the Hoggar through a fine sieve and the country will resurface, abrupt and pagan.
Enough already of fantasias, of rahat-loukoum, of the aïd sheep, the Berber rodeo, of couscous-mechoui, the assembly of village sages or of deep sociologists happening by and discovering their gold number, enough already of the veiled virgins and the amputation of foreskins. They should be given a head, two arms, two legs, a thing and should stop passing through every color of their specific civil status. Let them invent themselves iguana-men, zebra-men, erg-men, not chameleon-men, not men who only change to resemble themselves all the more.
— Here begins the struggle against the City: the City, its avenues, its markets, its concrete, its metaled, vitrified, opaque walls, its crater-cafés from where you come out ejected, drunk, its minarets, its widows, its colonels, its meddahs, its tahars, its Rachids, its Ramiz’, its ulemas, its RE-pulsions-volutions, its sidis, its gents, its second-hand goods and its whores, its sedition-submissions, its dissidences, its prefects, its suffetes, its consuls, all of it to be held at arm-length into a bag, to say: “Here’s the city.” And run to drown it like a litter of kittens in the oued in November.
Its granites, its stuccos, its stones, its hot-house poppies. The city of everything except of delirium — to cut it down.
For it I’ll invent a delirium, I’ll organize it so that the future City that will sprout in its place will bring the pubescent itch of freedom to come.
Translated by Pierre Joris
Mourad Bourboune was born in 1938 in Jijel, Little Kabylia, studied in Constantine, & took part in the 1956 student strikes. At independence he played a role in the country’s first government. After the coup d’etat of 1965, he moved to Paris and worked as a journalist. His first novel, Le Mont des genêts, which depicts the explosion of the colonial world, was published by Editions Julliard in 1964. The volume of poems Le pèlerinage païen, also from 1964, investigates the past & questions the present in the search for a possible Algerian future. In 1968, Christian Bourgois Editeur published a book often referred to as icono- clastic & unclassifiable, Le Muezzin, extracted above. This text—showing a powerful & intense poetic breath—throws a critical gaze on “the aborted revo- lution” (“a fetus between the fingers of the abortionists”), and after writing it, Bourboune abandoned all literary activities.