Tuesday, July 24, 2007

I once knew a young man (we'll call him Sifiso, although that is not his real name), a gentle and kind soul. He was often confused, and prone to wandering off. I imagine that all the single women within a 5 mile radius had had their hand in marriage requested by Sifiso, several times over. He would gently but firmly take your hand, make sure he had your attention, and propose. Turning him down didn't seem to dent his pride. Sifiso's mother was a hardworking seamstress who lent me fluffy novels (Macmillan's Pacesetter series for example, which incidentally are still available and can be ordered from the Africa Book Centre - hooray!). Sifiso's brother is one of the many disappeared - he did not come home one day, and there were whispers of alleged travels North out of South Africa to find external ANC training camps for freedom fighters. He has not been heard from since, and no news came for his family during the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The not knowing is so endlessly cruel. Sifiso himself was tortured by Apartheid security police past the point of sanity - hence the quiet confusion, the dizziness, paranoia and meanderings.

Fettouma Touati's DESPERATE SPRING begins:
Abdelkader and Sekoura had twelve children altogether. Five died in infancy. One boy was carried off by typhus but his mother claims he was killed by one of her enemies who put the evil eye on him. They had two married daughters, mothers of numerous offspring, who lived in Algiers. Another daughter, Djohra, was widowed at the age of twenty-four and was the mother of three children: Salah, Yasmina and Fatma. Sekoura's second youngest son, Said, lived in France with his wife Aicha. The youngest, Mohand, returned from the Resistance half mad.
I'm not sure if it is picturing Sifiso in my head while reading this, but I found Touati's storytelling riveting, especially her descriptions of the lives of those immediately around Mohand. War and torture, while never directly discussed, live on in the shockwaves rippling out into the wider family, starting with the implosion that knocks his wife, children and parents off their feet.

I (shamefaced) know very little about Algeria, although as a direct result of reading DESPERATE SPRING I am hunting down other fiction from there (Assia Djebar and Aziz Chouaki for a start) and will blog about them too in the fullness of time. I felt slightly at a disadvantage because of my ignorance of contemporary Algerian society. It is unclear to me whether some of the background to female experience described here is the same as it was in the early 1980s when this book was published. But that is just me responding to a desire to know more about Algerian society - the book needs no prior knowledge of Algeria's history.

This book is all about the lives of young women and girls as circumscribed by their marriage prospects. It is an angry book - the dark side, if you will, of books like Faiza Guene's NOT LIKE TOMORROW). Here Touati describes life in Paris for Malika:
Weary of living a lie, she left to live alone with her son. She got up at half past five, washed and dressed, had her breakfast, woke the child and fed him. Then she rushed him to the childminder and caught the bus. At lunch time she had a sandwich as the canteen was too expensive. In the evening she picked up her son, changed him, fed him and put him to bed. Then she did the housework, freshened herself up and finally went to bed at nine thirty with a book. This moment was sacred. What with the childminder, the rent and fares, all she had left over was a few centimes and a few hours' sleep. She wanted to live, even if it was for only one hour a day!

She spent a year living like this. Her mother urged her to come home. Her father remained angry for five years. For the first two years, he went around with a gun in his pocket, hoping to bump into her and cleanse his honour in blood.
It is the jolt of this last sentence which characterizes Touati's writing and keeps us reading in fascination. She does have occasional lapses into a somewhat unfortunately lecturing, educative style, but always lurking are startling descriptive passages.

Malika returns to Algeria, having been raised in the banlieue existence of so many North African immigrants to France. Can she adjust to Algerian life? Is it any better, less difficult, lonely and alienating than she has found French society? You may need to create a little family tree as you read along (I did) to keep track of who is who at the beginning, but you soon have them all straight and are captivated. In describing the lives of a large extended family Touati reflects Algerian society as a whole, and it is extraordinary.

Thank you francofinn for lending me DESPERATE SPRING, and for forgiving me since I've kept your copy so long! Published in French in 1984 (L'Harmattan, Paris) and in English by The Women's Press in 1987, Touati's book is sadly out of print, but there are still plenty of copies available secondhand (try abebooks).



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