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The Last Summer of Reason. The title alone seems too apt to bear—a too timely description of the season that seemed to vanish Sept. 11.
This slender novel, written and left unfinished by Algerian journalist and author Tahar Djaout in the early ’90s, reminds that the terror that began for us on a recent clear blue day began decades earlier for the citizens of the many Arab nations trapped in a seemingly endless face-off between secularists and Islamists. It is against this background that Djaout wrote and lived. As Thomas Friedman recently noted, this is a struggle that occurs within civilizations, not just between them.
In Algeria, conflict between Islamists and the governing secularists was ongoing long before 1989, when President Chadli Bendjedid instituted a series of electoral and democratic reforms in response to widespread protests. These reforms included the adoption of a new constitution that granted freedom of the press and of association, making Algeria’s newspapers among the liveliest in the Arab world. Djaout was one of the country’s leading writers during this efflorescence of literary and journalistic freedom. But the reforms also allowed for the formation of previously prohibited Islamic political parties such as the Islamic Front for Salvation (Front Islamic du Salut, or FIS), which won overwhelming support in the December 1991 elections. To prevent the Islamists from taking power and instituting a theocracy, Bendjedid’s cabinet dissolved the parliament, forced Bendjedid out, and ended the democratic experiment.
The Last Summer of Reason, Djaout’s 11th book and the first translated into English—he wrote in French—tells the allegorical tale of a quietly embattled bookseller holding out against an increasingly oppressive—and physically threatening—Islamist regime. In so doing, the book follows a pattern of elliptical critique in Algerian writing, where fictive oppressors are attacked instead of specific existing organizations.
Boualem Yekker, the book’s central figure, already lives in a dream world when we meet him. Absent-minded, approaching 50, and alone (his family, fearful of the consequences of his nonconformist modern manners and ideas, has abandoned him), the educated Yekker has seen his country overtaken by the Vigilant Brothers, an Islamic cabal that stands in for any number of radical Islamic groups across the Arab world. (The name seems to suggest Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, but Djaout may well have been thinking of what life in Algeria would have been like if the FIS had taken power. References to the regime’s “Afghan”-style clothing and repression also abound, though the book was written three years before the Taliban came to power.) As a bookseller in a world where all other scholarly works have been replaced by the One Book, Yekker is increasingly constrained by the Brothers and their ever-present spies.
The narrative follows the unnamed nation’s spiral out of control, moving in 17 short chapters between reality, memory, and nightmare in a steadily unraveling tale. The narrative itself is rather sketchy; it plays second fiddle to the book’s central argument, about the necessity of art, creativity, and the written word—of cultural freedom.
“[I]n the new era the country is living through, what is persecuted above all, and more than people’s opinions, is their ability to create and propagate beauty,” writes Djaout, before detailing the Brothers’ cultural attacks:
To affirm their victory, they knew what they had to do. They broke musical instruments, burned rolls of film, slashed the canvases of paintings, reduced sculptures to rubble, and they were permeated with the exalted feeling that they were thereby pursuing and completing the purifying and grandiose work of their ancestors battling anthropomorphism. No terrestrial face should compete with His Face, no work of beauty created by a human hand should come close to His Beauty, no passion whatsoever should rival His resplendent Love.
And so the writing and remembering that are the central focus of the book themselves are acts of defiance. It’s never clear how much of the flow of words is Yekker’s thinking about his world and how much is Djaout’s—the author rebelling by creating his character’s thoughts. The frequently overwrought prose tumbles into a profusion of metaphors. At times it is almost painfully poetic; at others, it is brisk and incisive. Always it is fervent, an affirmation of the possibility of nonreligious passion. Some of the occasionally awkward verbiage is undoubtedly the result of the translation—though there’s no excuse for “the wind, like a sagacious cat”—but some of it is also clearly set to illustrate Yekker’s forced retreat into himself. Yekker’s thoughts lack the clarity of narrative or the precision of description. He suffers from “an overdeveloped memory” where “places, faces, and objects go adrift, fragments subjected to a disorderly game of emulsion or magnetization.”
Yekker recalls a seashore vacation with his family during the final summer before they abandoned him, the final summer before the wave of rebellion became the law of the land. “That was a summer of attacks, but also of defiance” writes Djaout. “Boualem Yekker calls this the last summer of reason. Sometimes, the last summer of history. Indeed, thereafter the country went freewheeling, leaving history behind.”
Later, Yekker’s wife hides her body and face under the robes the theocrats require. Yekker rails against the way the new laws divide men from their beloved, denying desire and seeking to blot out the identities of the specific female individuals whom he loves. When Yekker’s wife leaves him, she stands “before him, dressed in black from top to toe, her body denied and erased by the stiff and rigid fabric. Her wish to survive exuded violently from her eyes, which were all that the shroud-shaped fabric had left visible.” Her fear was greater than her love, and his simple corduroy jackets were enough to guarantee her and the children pariah status, or worse.
Djaout successfully evokes the obliterating ugliness of an ascetic society where suffering comes from not just political repression but broad-scale cultural impoverishment. The city where Yekker lives is crowded from the ban on birth control, ugly and joyless from the absence of nonreligious music and art, poor from the exclusion of women and nonconformists from the workforce, violent from the self-righteousness of the Vigilant Brothers and their supporters, and dishonest from the constant need for each person to suspect his fellows of duplicity and betrayal. Corrupt businessmen suddenly find religion, and it is never clear whether a new edict—such as one decreeing that only a few models of clothing will be sold—represents some new religious interpretation or simply profiteering by a textile magnate.
The country’s ruler himself—the onetime Vizier of Reflection—”forbade himself any reading other than the Holy Book,” and Yekker cannot help but notice “the abyss that separated him—who had read some thousand books or more from Plato to Kawabata, by way of Mohammed Iqbal, Kazteb Yacine, Octavio Paz, and Kafka—from the man who, never having consulted any book,” now governs the nation.
Weather reports have been banned from television (for who can predict the will of God?) and spare tires forbidden from cars (preparing for a flat, after all, suggests distrust of God’s beneficence). There will soon be separate hospitals for men and women. Any person caught outside a mosque at prayer time will be brought before a religious tribunal.
Books—”the saving grace of dreaming and intelligence brought together”—constitute an especially serious threat to the new order. For a while, Yekker is tolerated by the regime as an oddity, because no one visits his store anymore except one fellow “eccentric,” Ali Elbougliga. Children peep into the shop’s windows and run away, returning only to throw stones at Yekker. Then one day he arrives at work to find his store shuttered. He has been closed down. An anonymous letter arrives at his home, imploring him to repent. The phone rings, ominous and horrible, in the middle of the night: A voice tells him that he is a dead man.
Yekker cooks eggs and cannot eat. Wracked with anxieties—he thinks he knows what comes next and dreams at night of being murdered by his own son, now allied with the Brothers and sporting a pious beard—he hides in his memories, the last refuge of freedom and happiness. There is no real anymore, just steadily increasing paranoia, fragments of recollections, and the wandering thoughts of a fevered imagination.
Yekker still finds it hard to believe that his nation could have undergone such a thorough and radical transformation from such a short time before, the summer when he could still walk peacefully with his daughter in a field, or drive with a woman in his car, without being stopped by the Brothers to have their family relationship verified. He held out because he thought resistance mattered. But in the end, he realizes that he has lost the battle. The fanatics will not be driven out.
How many men like him turned out to be wrong! It was enough for beauty and reason to doze off for a moment, abandoning their defenses, for night to shove day out and pour across the city like a horrifying flood. Now it is no longer possible to go back; every dike and every lock has been broken. Uncontrollable hysteria has overtaken the city, demolishing the barriers. All fanatic energy is stretched like an archer’s bow, turned toward a dream of society’s purification. Exorcism by blood and total deluge.
Djaout presents a horrifying—and ultimately pessimistic—vision of the Islamists’ powerful assault on modernity. “It is as if the course of time has gone crazy, and it is difficult to swear to the appearance of the following day,” he writes, ending the book with the question: “Will there be another spring?”
For Djaout himself, the answer was no. Two men pumped three bullets into Djaout’s brain while he was getting into his car in May 1993. His death marked the beginning of a brutal wave of Islamist violence against journalists that has taken the lives of 70 writers to date. His killers were never brought to justice. CP