on France, Story of a Childhood, an autofiction by Zahia Rahmani (Yale University Press)
Zahia Rahmani was born in Algeria in 1962 just as that country’s eight-year war of independence from France was ending. Her father was counted among the “Harkis” – the 75,000 Algerians who fought alongside the French against their own nationalist countrypeople. Literally overnight, the French crept away leaving 20,000 Harkis to be pulled from their beds, massacred and imprisoned. Rahmani’s father landed in jail. Upon his release In 1967, she and her family emigrated to France where they settled in Oise, less than an hour north of Paris by train.
Rahmani’s autofiction, France, Story of a Childhood, was published in France in 2006. Lara Vergnaud, her adept translator, says in her introduction that Rahmani, “reluctant to be pigeonholed, stated that she prefers to be regarded as a French rather than a Harki or Franco-Algerian writer.” This independent spirit is her narrator’s signature for she insists on establishing her freedom from the harsh authority of her father, the subservience of her ill mother, and the intolerance of neighbors – even while she listens raptly to her mother’s folk tales and memories, and while certain other French villagers welcome and support her.
She writes, “In France, the assumption that my elders should take an interest in my schooling doesn’t apply. My loved ones are confused and fearful about who I am to become. They prefer to ignore and avoid my future. I am a threat to the cohesion of the family. So how can they help with my questions or problems at school?” The mother is named Ourida; the name of the father, who will not allow his children to watch French television, is unspecified. Meanwhile, his daughter is drawn to the music of Patti Smith and The Doors.
The narrative embodies its liberation by shifting willfully from jittery observation to passages of straightforward memoir to lyricism. There are ellipses and leaps between past and present. At times the narrative downshifts into the language of op-ed: “What future can there be for a family narrative in a country that has erased all signs of it? Expropriation, theft, servitude, and dispossession eat away at dignity, and from all this cruelty emerges the deformed man.” The longer memoiristic flights are the most artful and moving sections. The young girl’s encounters with American literature are a defining moment – Tennessee Williams, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright.
… I see myself flying toward America to join that nation’s sons whose voices have miraculously reached me. My brother is the one who buys those first American authors, on his English teacher’s advice … American literature tells of its own people, and in so doing offers an exceptional gift. It describes one country’s violence and the nation that emerged therein, making that story the indelible marker of American culture. This literature brings invisible souls of all origins, whose voices were silenced, into the pantheon of great men … I owe this literature affection, respect, and lifelong loyalty for describing its own people as outsiders and for its commitment to the displaced, the uprooted man and his path.
Her discovery of the Jewish Holocaust shakes her confidence – and indicates how ardently Rahmani appeals to our desire for an inclusive modernity. When the girl learns that some of Europe’s most modern writers, artists, and thinkers were wiped out with the tacit approval of its population, dreads arises in her mind about her own prospects:
Algeria, my family, slavery, the black man, the Indian, the impoverished white man – I understood conquest, contempt, domination, the marginalized man. But there was something literature couldn’t teach me, couldn’t test me on. When I learned it, I stopped dead in my tracks. My world shifted. Auschwitz pulled the ground from beneath me when I hadn’t known a thing about the genocide of the Jews. Renoir, Modigliani, Steinbeck, Faulkner, and the others were quickly put away in a drawer … The crime was overwhelming, and I would understand only much later that this impact was part of its great victory. Was it worth it to assimilate, to believe in a brotherhood to come, to proudly bear the flag of universal culture, when the child brought to Europe must learn that its best representatives were exterminated here?
The urgency of Rahmani’s story is never in question since the French have long postponed a civic restitution for the Harkis. But as Vergnaud further notes, “France is not a Harki story, or even a French story. It is a universal tale of oppression, pain, and rebellion. Transmission, heritage, and family. Identity and belonging. And most affecting, maternal love and the moments that precede a great loss.”
France occupied Algeria for 132 years. When the French left, 50,000 Harkis found their way to “resettlement camps” in southern France. The French did not officially declare that there even was a war of independence in Algeria until 1999. Finally last September, a decade after Rahmani’s novel appeared, François Hollande admitted to the abandonment of the Harkis in those inhuman camps and acknowledged their current demands for recognition.
[Published May 24, 2016. 216 pages, $$16.00 paperback. Margellos World Republic of Letters series.]