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Nabile Farès: La Découverte du nouveau monde (Discovery of the New World)

This work is in fact a trilogy, consisting of three books first published separately: Le Champ des oliviers (The Olive Grove), Mémoire de l’absent (Memory and the Missing) and L’Exil et le désarroi (Exile and Helplessness).

Le Champ des oliviers (The Olive Grove)

The first novel of the trilogy is a difficult work. Farès was an Algerian but he had limited contact with Algerian culture when small and was brought up speaking French. However, he was a Berber and was therefore not happy when, after independence, Algeria stressed its Arab roots rather than its Berber roots. Like other Algerian writers, he spent much of his life in France and wrote in French. He was very concerned about this and Berber culture is a key part of his work and, in particular, of this work.

It starts in a very straightforward manner as we follow our hero who is leaving Paris by train to go to Barcelona, as Farès himself did. Our narrator is called Brandy Fax. Here is his explanation for the name: I got the ‘fax’ part from an advertisement I saw in the Paris metro for the Ecoles Fax, and I added the ‘brandy’ myself! It was a dazzling revelation to me, the way that ‘x’ cut off the word – the cancelling, the crossing out. It linked up with the blocked name inside each of us – the deleted identity.

We see in this phrase two key aspects of his work. The first is language. He plays with language in this and other books the way Joyce and the Surrealists did: the origin of words… / …at the origin of the formulation of words… / …the origin of the meaning of words… / …the tension of words… / …the nerves of words… / …the electricity of words… / …the palpitation of words… / …the pain of words… / …the thirst that words have… / …their colour… / …the warring of words… / …the mush of words… / …the spurting forth of words… / …the flaming up of words… / …the soil of words… / …the sky of words… / …the universe of words… / …the roundness of words… / …the spacing of words… / … (it goes on for much longer). Part of it, of course, is celebrating the richness of language and part of it is going back to an ur-language as he explores the early myths of the Berbers.

The other key word in the quotation above is identity. His work is about identity. Who am I? Is he French, Algerian, Berber or something else? As mentioned, he writes in French. Interestingly, he renounces Arabic, the national language of Algeria. indeed, when asked to name his first three languages, he chose French, Berber and English, not Arabic.

Farès was conscious of racism towards North Africans in France. We get a witty indication of this. In the same interview mentioned above, and also quoted in the introduction to this book, the interviewer mentions that readers find his books difficult. (Your readers – including me – often have difficulty deciphering your books, which can at times be rather opaque.) He asks Farès to give an explanation of a short passage. Farès chooses the word BIKINIl, written in caps, which appears incongruously. It turns out that is a sort of in-joke. The offensive slang word for people of Arab origin in France is bicot, often shortened to bic. This is perhaps the equivalent of the offensive US term towelhead. For him bikini is really (le)bic qui nie, i.e. The Arab who denies or The Arab who says no, i.e. who refuses to be categorised in that way. We continue with the language game as Bic is a brand of cigarette lighter in France and Farès plays with this as well.

Meanwhile back on the Paris-Barcelona train… Brandy Fax is happy to be leaving Paris as it was very cold but he has spent time with the most astounding person it had ever been his fate to encounter, believed to be James Baldwin. Though it is a night train, he cannot sleep and we are party to his musings.

We follow his musings on language and his life but above all, the Ogress of traditional Kabyle literature: INFALLIBLE OGRESS… / …PERNICIOUS OGRESS… / …YES… / …ME… / …HUMAN OGRESS… / …INDUSTRIOUS OGRESS… / …NUPTIAL OGRESS… / …PRIMEVAL OGRESS. She detests writing but then myths were normally transmitted orally. She is one of those legendary monsters that can be living but can also be cruel. But then we move on to the Siamese twins – two spontaneous human tendencies, one towards spiritualism, the other toward voyeurism.

In the latter apart of the book we move on to the Algerian War of Independence, a topic we will also see in the next volume of the trilogy. Farès gives us a more impressionistic than realistic account but, nevertheless, we can see the horrors of the war. Both Farès and his father were involved. We learn of the treatment of the Algerians by the French, including prison and torture. We also learn of previous Algerian revolts against French occupation.

Yes, we do get back to the Paris-Barcelona train journey. He does get to Barcelona where he spends time with his girlfriend Conchita. She wants him to stay in Spain but he feels he can only make his living in France. Indeed, we see here that he is more or less wedded to the French language, seeing it not so much as a colonialist language but and as an international language, which he and many of his fellow North African writers have adopted. He struggles with his writing: The most daunting thing is that some people think it’s easy for me to make words obey.

But he remains critical of Algeria. Conchita says that she would like to know Algeria. His response is quite acerbic: “You’ll have to wait a good twenty years.” “Why?” “Because the Algerian government types and nationalists have no sense of humour. Because their desire is a uniform population. And because this type of politics tends to last twenty years, minimum. Ten times that, perhaps andAlgeria is a country born of several wanderings and rapes from which there eventually grew not humans, but human dreams.

Mémoire de l’absent (Memory and the Missing)

The second novel is a bit more conventional (a bit more, not totally). We focus on the Algerian War of Independence and follow the story of his involvement and, more particularly, his father’s (Abderrahmane Farès) involvement as well as the story of a few other named Algerians. He and his mother escape to France, his father is arrested (though, in reality, later than in the book, his father being arrested in 1961 and sent to prison in Fresnes). Farès is not surprisingly very distraught at his father’s arrest and we learn from someone who had been in prison with the father that he has survived.

Again we get the laconic remarks about the situation: The terrorists? Everybody will become one someday because that’s the way it is, war goes on forever. As it turned out, this was a very prophetic statement.

In France, he has to deal with racism but he is also dealing with one of the key themes of Farès, namely the idea of absence and exile. One other key theme that we now get is genealogy, looking at his own but, more so, Berber genealogy in general. Take, for example, a few families that live right here, in Algiers, or a ways from Algiers, in the interior, in the mountains, and you’ll be surprised, yes surprised, to see how many families jealously guard their genealogical folk, more jealously than they do living people, preferring the simple phantoms of those endowed with power and abilities supposedly greater than those of the natives of today.

The idea of otherness is key to his work and he looks at his own otherness and, by his extension his place in the world. Men are not born this way, in a void of world. Each must espouse a place.

in 1956 Algerian students went on strike against the French occupier and Farès, then aged sixteen, participated and we get a description of his involvement as well as more on the nature of French colonialism.

L’Exil et le désarroi (Exile and Helplessness)

The third book is even more conventional in style and picks up after Algerian independence. Farès himself was not happy with what happened – the marginalisation of his father, the Arabisation of Algeria, with the Berbers shunted aside, the pseudo-communism and the dictatorial style of the first Algerian leaders: Ben Bella and Houari Boumédiène (neither of whom is mentioned).

A lot of this book is what happens in Algeria post-independence. We see that the people are initially happy with their independence but things soon turn sour. If the People are ready for their Independence the Politicians are not. He goes further: What they call “democracy” is power shared among fifteen people. A power which no one can grasp, and, which kills.

He is critical of the Arabisation/Islamisation of the country. (I have listened to the words of The Book, and felt, within me, a sort of slavery; yes, exactly as if I were supposed to learn my bondage, carry slavery within me.)

He describes a village where there were two schools. One was Koranic: on the hill Above. The other European: on the square (in the village) down Below. No communication, between the two schools. However he is more concerned with the third one, unnamed, bare of books, which you bear with you, simply carry, out of concern for your being, and, for living, what we might perhaps call the university of life.

We follow the story of people in the village such as the story of Nouria who is happy living on her own in the hills but, as collectivisation takes hold in Algeria, they try to get her to come down. She is against it. As well as collectivisation, he also mentions the industrialisation taking place, whose effect is to empty the villages.

He is also critical of the privileges given to the party leaders: only three per cent of the inhabitants have the right to make unsparing use of all the riches, job openings, fads and marvels of the City: certain key members of the Party, or the Administration, have heated swimming pools—despite the mildness of the climate that reigns (except for January and February) over the City. The remaining ninety-seven per cent divide up the inhuman and unjustifiable hierarchy of wretchedness that surrounds the City.

As mentioned at the beginning, this is not a particularly easy book to read but a very worthwhile one. I suspect that I own more Algerian novels that have not been translated into English than for any other country except France, so I am particularly glad that Diálogos Books and Peter Thompson have brought us this trilogy in English. It covers a wide variety of themes dear not just to Farès but to other Algerian writers, including exile and leaving, racism, otherness, colonialism and the the outcome of the Algerian war of independence, which Farès, like other writers, was not happy with. It also discusses other themes found in the works of many other writers, such as the role of myths and legends in the current world, language, identity and the relationship of the narrator to his readers and to his characters. There are quite a few Algerian writers who are well worth reading and are available in English and it is good to be able to add Farès to that list.

Publishing history

First published in French by Seuil in 1976
First English translation in 2020 by Diálogos Books
Translated by Peter Thompson