There is a very good bookshop just outside the kashba of Tunis where I found a pearl of Algerian-French literature: Hôtel Saint-Georges by Rachid Boudjedra. There were hundreds of books in that store so what made me choose this one? (by the way maybe they were all very good). Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t let go. It is very easy to understand the many different characters, the reader will love them all and wants to read their perspective on the life they live. This desire is largely rewarded by the author.
Also the book gave me new insights about Algerian family relations, for example I didn’t know that it is the role of the uncle from mothers side to be tender and show love (while the uncle from fathers side only gives ‘the name’). Boudjedra pictures Algerian family dynamics in such a way that you as a reader can feel like a family member. It also gives more insights in how the cultural notion of ‘collectivism’ works. Usually when people in the West discuss collectivism that exists in countries like the Maghreb, as opposed to individualism, they think a person can not be an individual due to the family relations. Boudjedra shows that within these collectivist families, family members have strong individual lifes and characteristics. The problem as pictured in this book is rather the impossibility within a collectivist structure to discuss what goes wrong and to ‘correct’ actions of individual family members, even heavy ones that really damage others. It is intriguing to read how the FLN (an army structure to oppose the colonial regime) is used to kill a family member who had an incestuous relationship rather than confronting him and seek justice in the system. The secret remains, the punishment is sought in different ways.
A very important aspect of this book is Boudjedra’s choice to see actual, cruel developments as an element of history: Algerian history since the independence in 1962, French history of colonialism 1830-1962 but also ancient history, medieval history. The 90+ year old family patriarch, Sidi Mohammed, who traveled a lot and speaks many languages, gives his conclusions of a lifetime: ‘J’ai compris aussi que la barbarie est le véritable patrimoine commun de l’Humanité. J’avais fini par comprendre que le propre de l’homme, c’est la cruauté’. (‘I have understood that barbarity is the real common heritage of humanity. I have finally understood that the characteristic of mankind is cruelty‘). From this point of view, it is not an optimistic book.
And there is something else to say about this approach. In the French literature of the Maghreb, some authors long for the colonial period of the French who introduced many good things that the countries still profit from today. Faced with the actual problems of incompetence and corruption on the one side and violence and radical Islam on the other side, authors like Boualem Sansal (le Serment des Barbares) give up hope for Arab leadership and think that the French offered more. Boudjedra shows how cruel the French regime has been in Algeria; even though that did not improve after the Algerian independence, that does not mean that he feels nostalgia for the French colonial times in Algeria, on the contrary: he is rather inclined to conclude that cruelty and barbarity is part of human history, in whatever shape or nationality.
Even though it is not a happy book, it is a very beautiful book in language, in themes, in richness – it is a book that gives you a lot of food for thought. Highly recommended!