Online Edition: Fall 2003

Wolf Dreams

Yasmina Khadra

translated by Linda Black

The Toby Press ($19.95)

by Kevin Carollo

      How can you forget when you spend your time betraying your memory, and your nights trying to piece it together again like a cursed jigsaw, only for it to go hazy again when dawn comes, over and over again. Every day. Every night. Endlessly.
      We call that obsession, and we think that naming it is sufficient to triumph over despair.
      What do we really know about obsession?
                    --Yasmina Khadra, Wolf Dreams

     Forgetfulness is a property of all action.
                    --Nietzsche

How do we make sense of violence, and what good can come of making sense of it? To name is not enough.

Yasmina Khadra, a pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, offers intensely stark and provocative portraits of the culture of violence in contemporary Algeria. His most recent offering to an English-speaking audience, Wolf Dreams, stands as a natural extension of his In the Name of God, which also documents the entwined nature of political corruption, fundamentalism, and violence in late 1980s-early 1990s Algeria. A more literal translation of this earlier novel's title would be The Lambs of God (Les agneaux du Seigneur). As the title suggests, Khadra's latest work explores the process of becoming-wolf, i.e. the turn to violence in order to assert absolutist parameters to Algerian national identity.

The attempt to make sense of violence through literature is a brave act, one that defies the obsessive and repetitive history of postcolonial Algeria. That Khadra, an officer in the Algerian army for 36 years, wrote these novels under a pseudonym, hints at the risk involved in documenting ongoing national violence. In such a context, the ritual forgetting of history has resulted in brutal factionalism. Khadra's work responds to the rise of fundamentalism with a profoundly humanistic and historical formulation: Algeria cannot exist as a nation without tolerance for its many religious, linguistic, regional, cultural, and political factions. Of course, to recognize the historical and cultural hybridity of Algeria constitutes an affront to its many fundamentalisms. Ironically, perhaps, Khadra's novels are fighting words.

Wolf Dreams focuses on Nafa Walid, an aspiring actor who starts working as a chauffeur for a wealthy, "Westernized" family. The novel narrates his turn from serving the debased bourgeois elite to getting caught up in the military-religious fervor of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). It then follows the increasing violence after the FIS is banned in 1992 and other radical groups take over. Through the novel's main character, Khadra portrays fundamentalism as deriving from a decidedly non-fundamentalist amalgam of factors. These include a reaction against class privilege, a frustration with political and economic corruption, the loss of historical memory between generations, and the search for a meaningful self amidst great inequity and national infighting. As Nafa becomes inured to the wolf culture of violence, he starts to embody its most obsessive qualities.

In turn, Nafa's descent into violence corresponds to "Algeria . . . plunging headlong into the irrevocable."Khadra is a master at articulating the fragmented national consciousness of Algeria through the obsessive eyes of the individual. (Born close to the beginning of the Algerian revolution for independence, in January 1955, and "entrusted to the military institution at age 9," Khadra has understandably referred to himself as "a little bit the actual history of Algeria.") The novel's periodic switch between first- and third-person narration helps maintain this tension. The need to discriminate individual and nation--and the wolf from its pack--also questions the absolutist notion that "You can't have one foot in the east, and one foot in the west."The difficulty presented here lies in taking another step, in maintaining a sense of national and individual consciousness not defined by the irrevocable footprints of East and West.

Wolf Dreams envisions the role of art as that which has the capacity to connect us to history, to compel us beyond obsession. In the novel, artists signify the most suspect of Algeria's subjects; consequently, they offer the most illuminating commentary on the impasses to forming a cohesive nation-state. Nafa notes:

Sid Ali, the bard of the Casbah, told me that Algeria was the biggest archipelago in the world--made up of twenty-eight million or so islands. He neglected to add that the oceans of misunderstanding that divide us are the darkest and vastest of the entire planet.

The mere recognition of national fragmentation has a distinct and powerful political valence to it. The suggestion that "In Algeria, there's no destiny. We're all at the end of the road" contravenes any fundamentalism which assumes that Algeria must become an Islamic state, culturally coherent, or some sort of pure "Eastern" nation.

At the end of the road, there is an alternate path. Khadra's compelling depiction of contemporary Algeria suggests a morally complex trajectory: the way out of repeating an obsessive history of violence begins with remembering it. The move beyond moral absolutism, and towards belief in the validity of nationalist hybridity, defines the political currency of today's best postcolonial literature. To read Khadra is to intuit this richer world.


Fall 2003 Table of Contents