Mohammed Dib

Novelist and poet exiled from his native Algeria

Friday 03 January 2014 05:53
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Mohammed Dib, novelist and poet: born Tlemcen, Algeria 31 July 1920; died La Celle-Saint-Cloud, France 2 May 2003.

Although he was born in Algeria, the great writer Mohammed Dib was thought of not as Algerian, but as one of the finest contemporary French novelists and poets. His last novel, Simorgh, was published a few weeks before his death, and in it he writes: "I didn't know I was an Algerian; I didn't know what it takes to be an Algerian: and I wasn't the only one. In my generation no one knew more than I did about that."

What is a simorgh? It is the Arab name of a mythological bird inhabited by the souls of the gods. It is also an image for the writer himself. Dib's whole work contains elements of the ancient past, of mythological mysteries. It is not the work of an exile. He brought up his children in France, and he travelled widely, establishing enduring friendships with Americans and Finns, for whom he wrote some of his best prose and poetry: the "verse novel" L.A. Trip (1999), the poem collection L'Enfant Jazz ("Jazz Boy", 1998) and the great late Finnish trilogy of novels Les Terrasses d'Orsol ("The Terraces of Orsol" 1985), Le Sommeil d'Eve ("Eve's Sleep" 1989) and Les Neiges de Marbre ("The Snows of Marble" 1990).

The poet Louis Aragon, introducing Dib's first collection of poems, Ombre gardienne ("Guardian Shadow", 1961), wrote: "This man from a country that has nothing in common with the trees at my window, the rivers along my quays, the stones of our cathedrals, speaks with the words of Villon and of Péguy." Dib produced about 40 books, writing to the very end. The Académie française rewarded him with Le Grand Prix de la Francophonie; and among his many other distinctions are the Prix Mallarmé for L'Enfant Jazz and Le Grand Prix du Roman de la Ville de Paris for the whole of his fictional (although largely autobiographical) work.

Dib's childhood was spent in Tlemcen, Algeria, where he went to school, and learnt to read in French before he learnt to read Arabic. His father died when Dib was 10, and life for him and his mother became a struggle for survival. He lived in Tlemcen and the town of Oujd just across the border in Morocco where he worked and studied until the war of independence. He soon began to write poems and to paint. He was a teacher in Oujd, a wartime French-English interpreter (1943-44), a designer in Tlemcen (1945-47) and a journalist on the Alger Républicain in 1951.

He made his first visit to France in 1952 for the publication of his first autobiographical novel, La Grande Maison ("The Big House"), the first of a trilogy continuing with L'Incendie ("The Fire", 1954) and Le Métier à Tisser ("The Loom", 1957). This first of his trilogies is marked by a generous nationalist-humanist populism, the style deeply influenced by literary realism (Zola, Céline).

In 1955 he was a signatory of the manifesto Fraternité algérienne, which led him to be expelled in 1959 from Algeria by the colonial authorities. In that same year he published his first book of children's tales, Baba Fekrane and a novel about his childhood and youth, L'Eté africain ("African Summer").

His exile in France became permanent in 1964 and marked a turning point in his writing. But Algeria always remained a presence in his novels and poems, though in a veiled and more muted way, as in Qui se souvient de la mer ("Who Remembers the Sea", 1962), Cours sur la Rive Sauvage ("Along the Banks of the Wild River" 1964), La Danse du Roi ("Dance of the King" 1968), Dieu en Barbarie ("God in Barbary", 1970) and many others that proved popular with French readers, especially those who had once lived in colonial Algeria. He was also a master of the short story and published several selections including Le Talisman (1966) and Au Café (1984), some of which, along with selections from his poems I translated for publication in the London-based magazine of contemporary Arab literature Banipal.

After a long silence, caused by deteriorating health, in 1987 Dib published the joyous outburst of poems in a book with the punning title of O vive (Eaux vives or "spring tides"), nourished by the double themes of woman and water, and with a languorous eroticism that seems to force the verses into longer and longer lines – a new form of verse composition for Dib, who had usually written in brief, unrhymed lines.

He also wrote beautiful essays, published in two volumes, Tlemcen ou les lieux d'écriture ("Tlemcen or Writing Places", 1994), a very moving return to his birthplace as a writer, and L'Arbre à dires ("The Tree of Sayings", 1998), an inspiring work on the spiritual and moral duties and rewards of writing. In all that Mohammed Dib wrote, there is the same continuous sense of the poet's moral duty towards humanity and towards language itself. In commenting on L.A. Trip, he writes: "It's obvious that verse has to control a language suffering at once from chronic diarrhoea and slumping under the adipose tissues imposed upon it by the Nouveau Roman." And about poetry he wrote, quoting an ancient Arab proverb: "If your song is not more beautiful than silence, remain silent."

James Kirkup

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