Assia Djebar’s novel Children of the New World - Les enfants du nouveau monde is set during the Algerian War of Independence or Algerian Revolution which lasted from 1954 – 1962. If you are not familiar with this war wikipedia gives a short overview. It was a so-called decolonization war between France and Algeria. The war was fought in many different ways, guerrilla warfare, maquis fighting, terrorism and extensive use of torture on both sides.
The war in Algeria is still controversial in France. While it is meanwhile called “a war” and not only a “pacification intervention” – or whatever euphemism was chosen at the time – many of the aspects of the war are still not spoken about openly. One of them being the “interrogation techniques”.
It was a complex war that ripped apart the Algerian society. I think Assia Djebar showed this well in her novel. She chose to write Children of the New World as a series of vignettes, each with the name of a protagonist as title. Upon closer inspection we see that these are not individual stories but that each is a piece of a puzzle forming a kaleidoscopic canvas, which is apt and nails the Algerian society of the time. This was a society that resembles a broken pot, still held together at the seams, but the cracks showed and covered it like spiderwebs, ready to burst at any moment.
I have read the one or the other critique of this book stating it wasn’t really about the war, which puzzles me no end. The war is everywhere in this book, in every page. Every relationship is influenced or distorted by it. Neither love nor parenthood, nor friendship, nor anything else is free of the war’s influence.
We don’t see the fighting, that takes place outside of the city, in the mountains, but the people see burning farms from afar, they see bombs fall and at the opening of the book, one falls on a house in the city, killing and old woman.
The book also shows how hostile this society was and how it was almost impossible to make a difference between enemies and allies. There were so many good and bad people on both sides. Not every Algerian was for the Algerian cause, not every French person was against it and many on both sides were against the use of torture and violence.
I have never read about any war in which torture was used this extensively. This becomes clear in the book too, although, mercifully, we find no descriptions, but we hear of people who don’t survive interrogations, of others who hear them scream in their own cells.
As said, the war is omnipresent in this book but Djebar transcends it and gives us more than just a society at war with itself and its oppressor. It shows a traditional society undergoing change and what this change means, notably for its women. I loved the many different descriptions of women’s lives. The diversity is amazing and in its best parts Djebar’s writing is as detailed as a documentary.
This was Assia Djebars third novel and it’s said that it’s not her best. I suppose that is correct as there are many structural problems. Djebar makes intense use of analepses , still I got the impression there were a lot of time-breaks that were not entirely wanted.
I’m curious and want to read another of her novels some day. She’s an interesting writer, with a raw unpolished force that I found quite refreshing.
For those of you interested in movies on the Algerian war – here’s a list that will also guide you to some of my reviews.
Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde was the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWI novel Grey Souls aka Les âmes grises by French writer Philippe Claudel . Discussion starts on Friday 30 August, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.