Kamel Daoud: Zabor ou Les psaumes (Zabor, or The Psalms by Kamel Daoud)
Our narrator/hero is called Zabor. Zabor is not his real name but comes from the sound he made when his head hit the ground after being pushed over by his half-brother, Abdel: Za-boooooor. It is claimed that he subsequently pushed Abdel down a dry well, though he claims that he did not and his devoted aunt, Hadjer, who has brought him up, insists that the story was made up. Whatever the truth, the mother of the injured half-brother, Zabor’s step-mother, complained bitterly. Her husband, Zabor’s father, Hadj Brahim, subsequently acquired a house to which Zabor, spinster aunt, Hadjer, younger sister of Hadj Brahim, and Hadj Brahim’s senile father were moved. Zabor, now thirty, still lives there with Aunt Hadjer, though his grandfather has died.
Aboukir, where Zabor, his aunt, his father and his father’s family live, is a remote Algerian village. Nothing much happens there. Hadj Brahim is the richest man in town, primarily because of his sheep-breeding and slaughtering prowess. He has had three wives. The first, Zabor’s mother, died when Zabor was two, after having been rejected by her husband. The second wife, mother of Abdel and eleven others, has now been rejected for a third wife. Zabor himself has never been married and is still a virgin. However, he has been in love a few times, more recently with Djemila the Dumb, a twenty-four year old woman, divorced, with two daughters. He is thinking of proposing to her.
Zabor has a key role in the town. He is the scribe but, more importantly, it is he who records the lives of all the inhabitants, without which memory of them would quickly fade. He writes down every trivial detail in an exercise book and names each life story after a famous novel. His first attempt, for example, was called Lord of the Rings. He is also a voracious reader and when he finally reads the real Lord of the Rings, he considers it inferior to his efforts. Abdel’s is called Peau de Chagrin (Skin of Sorrow) after the Balzac novel while another Balzac novel – Histoire des Treize (Story of the Thirteen) – is used for his half-brothers. For his father, he is not sure, but he is considering Le Château de ma mère My Mother’s Castle (from the Pagnol novel). During the course of the book, he will come up with various alternatives such as To the Lighthouse and Sleep of the Just, a novel by Algerian writer Mouloud Mammeri. However, he invariably returns to his favourite novel, Robinson Crusoe, both as a possibility for himself and for his father. Indeed, he calls it his holy book. He likes this novel not so much for Robinson Crusoe or, indeed, Man Friday, but for Poll the parrot, who has one sentence in the book: Robin, Robin, Robin Crusoe, poor Robin Crusoe, where are you, Robin Crusoe? Where are you? Where have you been?.
Zabor makes much of his writing (and reading) skill and role. Écrire est la seule ruse efficace contre la mort [Writing is the only efficient trick against death], he says early on. Later he states je compris que le monde était un livre, n’importe quel livre, tous les livres possibles, écrits ou à écrire [I understood that the world was a book, any old book, all the possible books, written or yet to be written] and La centaine de livres que j’ai lus m’a prouvé que l’éternité existe et qu’on peut la préserver par la transcription et le déchiffrement. Il suffit de lire sans cesse et, à défaut d’une bibliothèque infinie, écrire sans cesse [The hundred or so books that I have read proves that eternity exists and it can be preserved by transcription or decipherment. You only have to read continually and, if you do not have an infinite library, write continually.]
One day, the day he has been both been joyfully looking forward to but also dreading, occurs. Abdel comes round to his house one night, calling him out to their father’s house. Hadj Brahim is dying. He is taken to the house, pushed into the father’s bedchamber and told he has only three hours and no more. Initially, we do not learn what has happened but we later learn that it has not worked out well. The father cannot speak and Zabor does not know what to write, which is very unusual for him. Hadjer manages to negotiate another visit. Hadj Brahim remains unconscious but Zabor does manage to write a fair bit while he is there.
We will also learn more about his past. He had been to school but had migraines and panic attacks though, as we know, he did learn to read. Indeed, he learned to read well before his peers. Initially, he had attended Koranic school and had look set to be an imam or some other mosque official but that did not work out. When he grew up and started his writing about the dead and dying, the orthodox Muslims objected. Finally Hadj Ibrahim negotiated a deal. He would only go out at night – he loves wandering around at night, in particularly visiting cemeteries – and therefore he had no contact with people except his aunt and occasional visits to and from his father and half-brothers. He would no longer attend funerals. He would keep his writings to himself, which he did. In short, he became a third sex, with none of the responsibilities of a man and none of the disadvantages of a woman.
While there does not seem to be a formal will used in these circumstances, there was certainly a discussion, not to say a dispute over the likely inheritance and Hadjer is concerned Zabor will be left out. However, inevitably, Zabor does not follow the path everyone expects of him.
I thought Daoud’s previous book, Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) an excellent book but I think this one is better. No, of course, it does not have the obvious resonance of the Camus novel, though it does have references to numerous Western novels which Zabor uses as his titles, particularly Robinson Crusoe. What makes the book is the character of Zabor. He is a contrarian, different from his peers and, indeed, different from everyone else in Aboukir and he tells us, often in great detail, why. In particular, he talks at great length about his writing and reading. La création est un livre, et c’est le mien [Creation is a book and it’s mine], he states, and it is clear that his world revolves around writing and reading. He is not writing for an audience or to make money but to preserve memories and, of course, to keep his mind occupied. On more than one occasion, he mentions that it is difficult get books in Aboukir (much of his collection comes from a hoard he found hidden in a house formerly occupied by a Frenchman) and that he is left with two options: reading anything and everything (which he does) and, of course, writing. It preserves the memory of the people of Aboukir but it also preserves him.
His troubles with his father and his father’s family, his sexuality (which very much exists) and his feelings for Djemila (which he also discusses in detail), his relationship with his adoring aunt and his relationship with the imams (good) and local police (not quite so good) as well as night-time ramblings are all grist to his mill, in addition to his writings. After the success of Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter Investigation) it is good that this book will soon appear in English.
First published by Actes Sud in 2017
First English translation in 2021 by Other Press
Translated by Emma Ramadan