Sunday, September 11, 2011

Douglas Messerli | A Quiet Man in the Vast and Chattering Desert (on several works by Mohammed Dib)

by Douglas Messerli

Mohammed Dib Omneros (containing Formulaires and Omneros), translated from the French
by Carol Lettieri and Paul Vangelisti (Los Angeles: The Red Hill Press, 1978); Omneros (without
the other text) reprinted (Los Angeles: Seeing Eye Books, 1997)
Mohammed Dib Qui se souvient de la mèr, translated from the French by Louis Tremaine as
Who Remembers the Sea (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents, 1985)
Mohammed Dib La Nuit sauvage, translated from the French by C. Dickson as The Savage Night (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001)
Mohammed Dib L. A. Trip: A Novel in Verse, in French and English, translated from the French
by Paul Vangelisti (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2003)

I first “met” Mohammed Dib in correspondence concerning our planned Poets’ Calender in late September 1996. He responded in October, contributing three short poems, and soon after, in January 1997, sending a photograph for use in the book. I have the feeling that we communicated long before that—certainly I had been interested in his work for years before I wrote him, having read his only novel translated into English, Who Remembers the Sea. But these letters and notes are the beginning, in my files, of a fairly regular correspondence, in which I also sent him various Sun & Moon books and our translation journal, Mr. Knife, Miss Fork, and my large anthology of American poetry, From the Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990.

Over the years he wrote to me, in both English and French, in a short note of January 1997, thanking me for the anthology and noting that he had met John Ashbery, Allen Ginsberg, and Charles Bukowski. Another short note, this in French from November 1997, speaks of Guy Bennett’s upcoming re-publication of his collection of poems, Omneros (first published with Formulaires by Paul Vangelisti in a translation by Vangelisti and Carol Lettieri on Paul’s Red Hill Press in 1978). Dib also sent me books, including Le Talisman, Feu beau feu, and L’Enfant-Jazz. It was clear to Dib that I was interested in his work, and it was only a matter of finding a good translator and the right work for Sun & Moon or Green Integer to publish.

Unfortunately, the Poets’ Calender was never published, but we did later print a short story he had sent us in 1001 Great Stories, Volume 2. And throughout the early years of the millennium, we kept regularly in touch, exchanging publications. At one point in 2000 Dib wrote me, asking if I might send him a map of Los Angeles (I sent him the indispensible, voluminous Thomas Guide of the greater Los Angeles area) and a book of photos of Los Angeles. I searched for an appropriate collection of Los Angeles photos, but was unable to send it before he notified me he’d discovered one himself.

By 2002, I had discovered that his desire for these publications had to do with his writing L.A. Trip, a work about his Los Angeles experiences from 1974, when he lived in the city as Regents Professor in the French Department of the University of California—Los Angeles. He had also asked Paul Vangelisti to translate this new work into English, and when Paul suggested that Green Integer might publish it, I quickly agreed. We signed an agreement with Dib, and attempted to collaborate on a joint bilingual publication with his French publisher, Éditions le différence. For some reason the French decided not to publish with the English text, despite Dib’s own insistence upon a bilingual edition. Indeed, the work, in part, is about the two versions sitting side by side. So we went ahead with our publication plans, preparing to issue our dual-language version in 2003, the same year as the French only edition appeared in Paris. Dib was preparing to travel to the United States to celebrate the American publication, and Paul was excited to get the chance to greet his old friend again, and I to meet the author in person.

It came as a shock to us all, accordingly, to receive the news that on May 2 Dib had suddenly died. We knew he had long suffered from diabetes, but he had seemed a lively octogenarian, and we knew he had long been looking forward to his American voyage.

Born in Tlemcen, Algeria, Dib attended a school where he learned French before he studied Arabic. Although raised as a Muslim Dib never attended the traditional Koranic school. His father, a carpenter, died when Dib was young.

Already at the age of fifteen, Dib began to write poems, while working from 1939 to 1959 at various odd jobs, including teacher, accountant, weaver, interpreter, and journalist. During World War II he studied literature at the University of Algeria, and from 1950-51 wrote for the newspaper Alger républicain and Liberté, the Algerian Communist Party paper.

Dib’s first major work was the novel La grande maison, the first book in a trilogy, published in 1952, two years before the outbreak of the Algerian War for Independence, L’Incendie (1954) and Le Métier à tisser (1957) representing the other two volumes. These years from 1954 to the war’s end had a profound impact on Dib, and several of his books throughout the period reflect his wartime experiences, particularly his novel of 1962, the year of Algerian independence, Qui se souvient de la mèr (Who Remembers the Sea), the only of his longer fictions to be published in English. The difficulty in living in Algeria while writing in the oppressors’ language of French eventually led him to leave his home, settling outside of Paris in 1959.

Many of Dib’s fictions use more traditional narrative techniques to describe the socio-political issues of the day; but influenced as he was by Cubism, science fiction, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, and Jung, Dib gradually moved away from realism, writing from mythic or dystopian visions.

This is particularly true of his great war-time novel, Who Remembers the Sea. For those of later generations, the Algerian War of Independence may not evoke many memories. It is important to understand that it was one of the first and most important of decolonization wars, a war which was fought through guerrilla warfare, retaliation, and terrorism that would later define Arab terrorist acts.
What began on November 1, 1954 as a guerrilla battle of the National Liberation Front against military installations, police posts, warehouses, and communications facilities—a national struggle for the “restoration of the Algerian state, sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam”—would end with over 300,000 (the Algerians place that figure at 1.5 million) people dead and over 2 million Algerians uprooted, many later dying of starvation, disease and exposure. Both sides extensively used torture, but the French were particularly effective, arguing, like the American government today, that the prisoners of this war lay outside the controls of the Geneva Convention. Mass rapes, the submerging of prisoners in freezing water or excrement and the repeated use of electric shocks were extensively used as tools of torture. After the war Paul Aussaresses, then director of the French secret service in Algiers, admitted that over 3,000 prisoners considered to have “disappeared” were, in fact, tortured and executed. These facts and their implications for French culture created divisions that exist still today throughout France and the Arab world.

It is notable, accordingly, that Dib’s novelistic presentation of these events are not at all presented within a realist context. The narrator describing the war-torn city spends many of his hours at a regular meeting place, a café, where various friends and he discuss, often quite obliquely, the daily horrors of the war. Much of his energy is used up in simply getting to the café and returning home, during which he and others are attacked by strange bird-like creatures called (in Dib’s own vocabulary) “spyrovirs” and “iriace,” science-fiction like-beings which, like rockets and low-flying cruisers, terrorize the citizens of the city, often cornering them in cul-de-sacs and squares. At home the narrator is equally greeted with the moans, cries and gossip of the women. The peaceful and placid roar of the sea seems to have abandoned them, as they lie awake each night, counting the numerous explosions and blasts, imagining the torture and murder of their own people.

Dib’s innocent narrator is clueless, unable to even recognize, at first, that his wife is clearly involved in terrorist acts, as she disappears for long periods of time, leaving their children with neighbors or her husband. Yet he is comforted by her, upon her returns, and able to continue as much as possible in his daily routines. It is only upon her apparent death, when she does not return, that he must seek out the secret entrance to what he has begun to perceive as an “underground city” as vast as the city above it, which represents, perhaps, either escape or death. It is only as he seeks the entrance to that invisible city that he comes to perceive the seemingly innocent café as the center of the world of terrorists and spies.

In a Postface to this novel, Dib attempts to answer why he has treated the horror and misfortune of the Algerians in such an abstract matter, and calls up Picasso’s great painting of the Spanish Civil War Guernica as an example of how art can perhaps be more moving and representative of reality in its abstraction as opposed to a realist presentation. Putting his own suffering and that of his country in context, Dib poignantly asks a question all 20th and 21st century writers must face: “How can one speak of Algeria [or any other suffering culture] after Auschwitz, the Warsaw ghetto, and Hiroshima? What finally can one do in order that what nevertheless there is to say can still be heard and not be absorbed by what that great demonic cloud that has for so many years been floating above the world, not surround us?”

In this sense, we perceive many of the voices of Dib’s fictions and poems as being quiet declarations (Dib describes poetry itself as “silent music”) against what he describes in his later book of stories The Savage Night, as “the vast and chattering desert that has spread over a large part of the planet.” If art has any nobility, he argues, it is that it helps us survive this painfully revelatory clatter of the hate, horror, and meaninglessness that overcomes even the gentle throb of the sea.

Accordingly, many if not most of Dib’s characters, no matter how glib and experienced they see themselves to be, ultimately turn to quietude in order just to survive. There is no more apparent example of this than the modern Algiers couple of his story “The Detour,” a man and a woman, Ben and Soraya, who artfully steer their expensive Mercedes from the Algerian town they have been visiting back to their city home. A detour sign sends them inland, into the desert, where suddenly the road comes to an end, and their magnificent machine becomes stuck in the sand. Night is approaching, so the couple set out toward a distant light, meeting up with a seemingly pleasant enough native who takes them to his home and feeds them. The next morning, as they wait expectantly for help in freeing the car, the couple is taken away to a pit, where an orator declares them to have been brought to the small village by “the hand of god.” The village—arid, barren, desolate—has suffered for years, and now the natives hope to free themselves from what they perceive as an evil spell by sacrificing the couple. The story’s final revelation is as shocking to this sophisticated couple as it is the reader:

This time, Ben didn’t hold himself back—he allowed his great, bellowing laughter
to ring out. But before he could dry his eyes, another group of ruffians threw
Soraya into the bottom of the pit with him. She landed nearby without uttering
a sound, as if she were already dead. Immediately afterwards, a lid made of
wooden beams lashed hastily together was pulled over the mouth of the hole.
Ben listened as huge boulders were rolled into place over their heads.

The title story of this collection, “The Savage Night,” relates the tale of a wealthy brother and sister, Nédim and Beyhana, as they travel the streets of their city via bus from their beautiful villa to a poorer section of town to release bombs in a local restaurant in an act of terrorism. Behi escapes, but Nédim is shot, and she is forced to carry him long distances through the streets while the military seeks them out until she can find a conveniently isolated spot. So intense is their love for one another and their complete belief in their cause, that even today, when we recognize the total savagery of such acts, we can only sympathize with the young couple as the brother gradually slips into death and Beyhana—still living years later in the villa she has attempted as a youth to escape—is doomed to a life of terrifying memories.

In another of Dib’s ironic tales, “A Game of Dice,” two young radicals break into the house of an older man with the intention of killing him as they have been ordered by their superiors. But the old man, armed with a gun, shoots and kills one of the boys, betting the other his life with the roll of the dice. Despite his recognition that reason will have little effect on this young automaton—a boy whose life has been so denigrated that he has no comprehension of the value of living—the man attempts to inculcate in the youth some sense of moral values. When the boy is finally let go, he enters the streets where life is held so cheaply that he is shot at by his own cohorts.

Perhaps one of the most humorously dark stories of this book most clearly demonstrates the silence inflicted upon anyone with something of importance to say. Sitting in a suburban Paris café, the author/narrator overhears a conversation between two men—who in the U.S. we might describe as rednecks—Gilbert and Marcel. Marcel loudly discusses the news he has just heard, that all “the dark skins,” “the wogs, the spades, those maguerrebin hustlers” have suddenly left the city en masse. Where they have gone no one knows, but it is clear to him that, while their exodus has long been sought, they have no appreciation for the cultural advantages that France has afforded them.

Bemused but also startled by this strange information, the narrator—who like Dib does not look like the “maguerrebins”—has no choice but to remain silent in response to this absurd discussion. Ultimately the two men, glad to be rid of “those bastards,” seem to miss their former neighbors:

Shit! Why in the hell did they up and leave? What’d they have
against us? I just don’t get it. Our country wasn’t good enough
for them? They’ll have nothing but dirt to eat back where they
come from, I can tell you that much. The bastards! I had a few of
them right next door to me. I got along just fine with them. Think
I should’ve told them to stay?

“It’s gonna seem awful empty, that’s for sure,” Gilbert replies. Dib’s narrative comically reveals the frustrations of those French citizens living at the fringes of their own culture, of having a voice without a voice.

In this respect Dib has represented one of the major writers speaking for cultures dominated by or immersed within other cultures. Like the underground city of Who Remembers the Sea, these “conquered” cultures and their spokesmen do not completely disappear, but change within their new worlds, transform themselves and the worlds around them in quiet reinterpretations of history, retelling history within what Dib describes as the “crypto-spaces,” creating a kind of shadow history (“If Tolstoy is history,” notes Dib, “Dostoevsky is the shadow”). It is clear that this kind of rereading of culture is precisely what Dib had in mind by writing the bilingual “novel in verse” L. A. Trip. Like the narrators of so many of his works, the author, in recalling his stay in Los Angeles, speaks in fragments, witnesses rather than reveals. But bit by bit we see a city, described—like Dib’s friend and translator Paul Vangelisti’s magazine of the period—as “invisible,” transformed by the images of Dib’s imagination; a small Black boy with his back turned to the author, a passing dog, a ringing bell, a dove, a beautiful woman named Jessamyn with whom the author obviously has fallen in love, the sounds and emptiness of his sleepless nights gradually build up an American landscape—Dib’s American landscape. As he notes in the very first poem/chapter, appropriately titled “Those American Things,”

Things will open
their eyes by themselves.

He is silently disturbed
by their silence. He,
dying of longing.

Those things at hand.
He who was for them no stranger,
who prowled around the. No.
Not distressed. Silent.

Then from being unknown
they draw closer
for his longing to live here.
He is silently disturbed.

By the time he “moves off in silence” at the end of the poem, he has become a kind of faux American, a kind of Black-hipster cowboy singing the Blues. The final “chapter” appears only in English:

You know, the man can’t help it
but feel bad, yes just feel bad.
So long, ma’am Jessamyn, so long,
Lord, I just couldn’t help it.
There ain’t no use crying, yeh Sir,
that’s gospel true. Let’s us git.
So long, ma’am Jessamyn, so long.

So long, Mohammed, we will miss you, miss the re-discovery of who we are in the crypto-space, in the eyes of such a sensitive and observant “stranger.”

Los Angeles, November 29, 2003
Reprinted from Or, No. 2 (April 2009).

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