Tahar Djaout's manuscript, The Last Summer of Reason, Ruminator Books, 2001, was found after his death in 1993. The novel was published as it was found, in French, and recently translated into English by Marjolijn de Jager. Djaout was an Algerian novelist, poet and journalist. The compactly written novel is a poetic story that is as horrifying as it is beautiful. Like other writers of the North African Mediterranean coast, Albert Camus in The Stranger, or Isabelle Eberhardt's The Oblivion Seekers, Djaout's landscape is both harsh under an unyielding sun, and darkly voluptuous with hidden corners intoxicated by the breath of life, sung to by a heaving sea. The sense of place looms large: "Boualem...overlooking the city...that tumbles down like a herd of goats from a curtain of hills and then scatters around the shore. In the evening, its lights draw the illusion of a starry sky reflected in the water--a milky way stretching, sometimes curving, or simply closing in on itself."
It is the city of Boualem Yekker's birth, where he has lived his whole life and where until just recently--when his shop was confiscated by the Vigilant Brotherhood--he was a seller of books. Boualem was not only a seller, he was a reader and consumer, a believer in books. All kind of books, with all the varied voices of many different authors. "Being separated from his books is the greatest upheaval he has faced in his life--even the departure of his family does not represent as profound a break with his past and as obvious a confiscation of his future."
For a long time Boualem has been surviving through his books and on his memories, he is man for whom the present has died. The Vigilant Brotherhood have taken over the once life-rich city and closeted it in a religious straight jacket that denies anything but obedience and subservience to God. "They have decided to polish the sky so that their faith might be reflected there."
Before books came to his life, Boualem was a boy like any other, who played like other boys, dreamed like other boys, desired like other boys. They played soccer in the vacant fields, "...until night fell and the ball started to hide even from their sharp vision. Sometimes--marvelous moments--girls would stop to watch. Then the players would lose their heads, out do each other, increase their efforts and irregularities, and become ridiculous."
And later, as a student in cafes where, "Even an impoverished youth could counter misery with vigor, beauty, the impertinence of one's body...On prosperous days, you could sit down on a terrace and buy yourself a drink or a bitter and delicious beer. Those were titillating moments when life would change colors, when your head sang out and would sink into a dizzying celebration." Just living a life.
But polishing the sky so faith may be reflected in it means eliminating all of that; music, dance, alcohol, swimming at the beach, all the simple pleasures. Thinking, even. The Brotherhood roam the streets on their green motorcycles, bearded gangs sent to harass citizens, stopping cars and pedestrians at will, moving through the city in a righteous indignation. "That was the summer of attacks, but also of defiance. For a while now, bands of enlightened redeemers had been raiding the beaches, making life miserable for the summer visitors, going so far as to attack them physically. Women swimming by themselves were the obvious prey; they were tracked down, berated, and molested."
Prayer is the key, silence the weapon; silencing the questioning voice, numbing the desire to resist. To be joyful is to tempt God. Death and Paradise are to be sought. At one point the Brotherhood, Boualem learns, bans spare tires. Why? If Allah wants you to get where you are going, Allah will get you there, to have a spare tire is to doubt the will of Allah (to hedge your bet). So, too, weather forecasts and science. Science attempts to explain God's creation. A radio announcer cannot say the day will be cloudy or rainy, only God wills the day, to predict is to compete or to doubt. "One day, people grew tired of thinking, weariness swooped down over their intelligence, and reason wavered...Only dreaming is still allowed, to those who know how to find refuge within themselves. It is the only autonomous area that keeps the prison wardens at a distance."
But Boualem is defiant. He cannot bleat like a sheep. He will not. His wife and daughter and son leave him because they have decided to conform--it is too difficult to resist and too dangerous--and Boualem is left alone. He has his books and he has his memories. "And so, for lack of having a life, Boualem Yekker dreams. He replaces people with ghosts." But the local children have begun to attack him verbally and to throw stones (they are the easiest minds to subvert and indoctrinate). He has begun to receive phone calls in the night.
If all of this sounds sickeningly familiar, remember Tahar Djaout's manuscript was found among his papers in 1993, a full two years before the Taliban established a religious state in Afghanistan. What the novel records is nothing short of a terrifying closing in. Even more terrifying because of the elegance of the writing and clarity of spirit. Tahar Djaout knew he was being hunted. He created Boualem Yekker to make a record of that hunt. Picture the hare making a memoir for the hound.
If I have any hesitation at all about the book it is the sometime naive belief Boualem has in the humanizing effects of culture. "As long as music can transport the spirit, painting can make the core bloom with a rapture of colors, and poetry can make the heart pound with rebellion and hope, they [The Vigilant Brotherhood] will have gained nothing. To affirm their victory...they broke musical instruments, burned rolls of film, slashed the canvases of paintings, reduced sculptures to rubble...no work of beauty created by human hand should come close to His Beauty, no passion whatsoever should rival His resplendent Love."
Okay, let's transplant Boualem Yekker to a theme park, or to a gratuitously violent movie, or a really moronic TV show and see what he thinks of bald, marketplace culture. See if he would find the often vapid expressions of a shopper society a little disappointing in terms of the core blooming with hope. I'm throwing this out because I think Tahar Djaout's prophetic writing focuses on a real dilemma: an oppressive religious state that all but crushes the spirit Vs a market driven state that puts a price on everything and threatens to render the spirit comatose. Obviously, I'll take the freedom of capitalism over radical Islam (or radical Christian Fundamentalism, Anti-abortion Papal decrees, or Hassidic Fundamentalism to name a few other skyward concepts*), but I'd prefer a third option.
But we can't run the transplant experiment because in June of 1993 Tahar Djaout was assassinated, shot several times outside his home, dragged from his car that was then used by his killers to get away. The assassins were reportedly members of the Islamic Salvation Front. One, who was captured, was quoted as saying Djaout's "...fearsome pen that could have an effect on Islamic sectors..." got him killed. By March of 1993 hundreds had been murdered, and writers, doctors, judges, editors had become targets too.
Even if the echo of Tahar Djaout's book did not resonate so true right now, today, it is still a beautifully written homage to life, in all that it opposes and in all that it brings to light despite.
*December, 2001: Christ Community Church, Alamogordo, NM; books of Shakespeare, and Harry Potter books were burned when the Reverend Jack Brock called them "Satanic deceptions". An exorcist at the Vatican claimed the Devil lay behind Harry Potter. Source: The NY Times.