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Mouloud Mammeri: La Colline Oubliée [The Forgotten Hill]
Mammeri’s first novel is presumably partially autobiographical. It is set in a small Algerian village (where the people speak Berber) and narrated by a man called Mokrane. The village is caslled Tasga and means corner in Berber. The young men of the village go around in two different groups, though the two groups are not necessarily rivals. At the start of the novel we learn that Menach, Mokrane’s cousin, who is in Mokrane’s group, called Taasast, is going through a bad patch and is permanently miserable. The reason soon becomes clear. When Davda first arrived in the area, he was highly critical of her but now that she is married, he seems to have fallen in love with her.
There are two clear events at the beginning of the novel. The first is the likelihood of World War II which, though very remote for the Algerians, is still something they are aware of and the fact that it might affect them. The second is a sort of malaise – physical and mental – that seems to hang over the village. The wells have dried up so the women have to go down to the river in the valley to fetch water. Far more girls seem to be born than boys and the boys seem to die earlier. When they are older, many of the boys emigrate to France. As a result, there is a surfeit of girls in the village. Almost as important, there seems to be a general feeling of malaise hanging over the village. Children do not seem to play any more while adults feel a general lassitude.
As they knew it would, war eventually does come and many of the young men are called up. Mokrane got engaged at the beginning of the novel to Aazi and he has told both Aazi and his mother that he will not have to go, as he is still studying. This is not correct, as we learn and his fiancée guesses. Indeed, this leads to an argument between the couple. The first batch of men set off and we get a very colourful picture of the scene, as they go. In the meantime, he and Aazi marry. Eventually, Mokrane gets his papers and, of course, keeps them hidden from his mother and Aazi. He is sent off to officer training, though, because of a bureaucratic error, his first month is spent doing nothing. He trains with Menach, who has Mouh, the former shepherd of Mokrane’s family, as his batman. Mokrane is horrified when he catches them in what seems to be a gay relationship. Menach denies it but the evidence seems strong. However, when Menach learns that Mouh was married (albeit against his will, at the insistence of his mother), the couple seem to break up. Meanwhile, things are not going well back home as Aazi is not getting on with Mokrane’s mother and Mouh’s wife is also having problems.
Once the Germans have occupied France, the Algerians go back home but things are not good back at home. There is a typhus epidemic, those young men who wanted to go to France to study (including Mokrane) can not, food is in short supply and expensive and there is little work. There are lots of beggars and an active black market. Mokrane’s situation is not helped by his mother’s strong opposition to Aazi, primarily because she is not getting pregnant. Indeed, she tries to get the local sheikh to persuade Mokrane to leave Aazi and marry someone else. She maintains that Aazi is not getting pregnant because of her sins. Aazi tries various folk and religious remedies, all without success.
Then things change again as the Allies fight Rommel in the North African desert and the Algerian young men are again called up. We get scant description of their involvement but we do know that it is hard work, several of their men are killed and the action last several months, during which time there is no contact with their families. When they do manage to get information about their families, Mokrane finds out that Aazi has gone back to her parents but that she is pregnant. By this time, he has to all intents and purposes abandoned her. However, finding out about her situation in a very sad letter he receives from her has a profound and devastating effect on him.
Mammeri’s account of the effect of World War II on a fairly remote Algerian village is very well told. It is interesting, for though it was published in 1952, it mentions homosexuality and shows women mixing freely with men, though the women still suffer various pressures, such as taking the blame for not getting pregnant and having to work for their mothers and mothers-in-law. Mammeri gives us colourful accounts of life in the village and the changing customs, presumably, at least in part, because of the influence of the French occupation. Interestingly enough, the French play little role in this book. Unlike other Algerian novels, where the French are mocked and criticised, in this book they seem to be almost irrelevant or, at best, remote. There is much sadness in this book for virtually all the main characters but their problems are not caused by the French. Sadly, only one of Mammeri’s books has been translated into English but not this one, the fate of many worthwhile Algerian novels.
First published in French by Plon in 1952
No English translation