Assia Djebar: Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde (1977) Literature and War Readalong July 2013

Children of The New World

Assia Djebar’s novel Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde is set during the Algerian War of Independence or Algerian Revolution which lasted from 1954 – 1962. If you are not familiar with this war wikipedia gives a short overview. It was a so-called decolonization war between France and Algeria. The war was fought in many different ways, guerrilla warfare, maquis fighting, terrorism and extensive use of torture on both sides.

The war in Algeria is still controversial in France. While it is meanwhile called “a war” and not only a “pacification intervention” – or whatever euphemism was chosen at the time – many of the aspects of the war are still not spoken about openly. One of them being the “interrogation techniques”.

It was a complex war that ripped apart the Algerian society. I think Assia Djebar showed this well in her novel. She chose to write Children of the New World as a series of vignettes, each with the name of a protagonist as title. Upon closer inspection we see that these are not individual stories but that each is a piece of a puzzle forming a kaleidoscopic canvas, which is apt and nails the Algerian society of the time. This was a society that resembles a broken pot, still held together at the seams, but the cracks showed and covered it like spiderwebs, ready to burst at any moment.

I have read the one or the other critique of this book stating it wasn’t really about the war, which puzzles me no end. The war is everywhere in this book, in every page. Every relationship is influenced or distorted by it. Neither love nor parenthood, nor friendship, nor anything else is free of the war’s influence.

We don’t see the fighting, that takes place outside of the city, in  the mountains, but the people see burning farms from afar, they see bombs fall and at the opening of the book, one falls on a house in the city, killing and old woman.

The book also shows how hostile this society was and how it was almost impossible to make a difference between enemies and allies. There were so many good and bad people on both sides. Not every Algerian was for the Algerian cause, not every French person was against it and many on both sides were against the use of torture and violence.

I have never read about any war in which torture was used this extensively. This becomes clear in the book too, although, mercifully, we find no descriptions, but we hear of people who don’t survive interrogations, of others who hear them scream in their own cells.

As said, the war is omnipresent in this book but Djebar transcends it and gives us more than just a society at war with itself and its oppressor. It shows a traditional society undergoing change and what this change means, notably for its women. I loved the many different descriptions of women’s lives. The diversity is amazing and in its best parts Djebar’s writing is as detailed as a documentary.

This was Assia Djebars third novel and it’s said that it’s not her best. I suppose that is correct as there are many structural problems. Djebar makes intense use of analepses , still I got the impression there were a lot of time-breaks that were not entirely wanted.

I’m curious and want to read another of her novels some day. She’s an interesting writer, with a raw unpolished force that I found quite refreshing.

For those of you interested in movies on the Algerian war – here’s a list that will also guide you to some of my reviews.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

 

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Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde was the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWI novel Grey Souls aka Les âmes grises by French writer Philippe Claudel . Discussion starts on Friday 30 August, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

42 thoughts on “Assia Djebar: Children of the New World – Les enfants du nouveau monde (1977) Literature and War Readalong July 2013

  1. Am stil reading so will come back and read your post properly later–but have skimmed. It is an interesting book–you are right the war is all over but somehow it feels sort of subtle–there are no battlefield scenes–it all seems to be happening on the mountain, yet it all affects the lives of the characters–it’s presented in a really interesting way.

    • It is interesting, I’m looking forward to hear what you think of it once you’ve finished.
      The war must have infiltrated the whole society. Quite sad and disturbing.

      • Have finished it–liked it very much but I want to read the afterword now and will hopefully get to write about it this weekend. It was subtly done–I sort of wish now I had read something about the war before beginning reading, but I will do so now. It did feel somewhat disjointed but seemed to be like a crazy quilt of experiences with some overlapping and coming up together against each other. A good introduction to reading about the period and place I think!

        • I liked it better than I thought I would. It was a bout the war but about so much more. I felt I got a really good impression of life in Algeria at the time. Like Litlove said, it’s a mosaic of women’s lives.
          I’m glad I have another of her novels hear. I think Fantasia is said to be one of the best butr Litlove mentioned another one.
          I’m looking forward to your review. I must admit, I ran out of time and didn’t read the afterword.

  2. I read an interesting comment about the nature of civil war once–that if you live there, you can’t escape and you will inevitably become involved. Makes me think of Iraq and how families just travelling from A to B got blown up at some checkpoint. A civil war is by its nature problematic. As you say who can you trust? There will always be opportunists ready to shop their enemies.

    Interesting. I just read a book in which a character ended up being an interrogator in the Algerian war as he was so vicious.

    • I guess that’s true. The lines in Algeria were particularly blurred as there were so many on both sides and the French born in the country suffered a great deal too.
      I don’t know how they chose ther interrogators. In the book she showed that you could be forced. In the FRench military they chose officers. I don’t think they had much of a say in it to be honest.

  3. Beautiful review, Caroline. I liked this sentence from your review very much – ‘This was a society that resembles a broken pot, still held together at the seams, but the cracks showed and covered it like spiderwebs, ready to burst at any moment’. It is a very powerful and haunting image. I learnt a new word from your review – ‘analepses’ 🙂 It is nice to know that the book depicts the Algerian war in a balanced way and makes the war come real to the reader. I also liked your description of Assia Djebar as a raw unpolished force. Thanks for this wonderful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy. I really felt it showed a broken society and from what I see now and read the pot did burst eventually. Algeria is still a problematic country, not like Morocco or Tunisia.
      It’s nice sometimes when an author isn’t too explicit. Last year we had a few books in the readalong that really stressed me quite a bit.

    • The only problem is that you wouldn’t really learn that much about the how and why of the war. Still it gives a good impression of what it was like for the people there.
      I thought it was extemely powerful.

  4. Excellent review. I agree that the book gives a good impression of what a civil war is like, but I feel that it does not give a good impression about how harsh the war was. For that you watch “The Battle of Algiers”.

    I found the book to be a difficult read. I could not breeze through it. You have to concentrate on every word which is okay if I really care about what is happening. Not the case here. That may be because I’m not female. I can see where the book resonates much more with women. Nothing wrong with that.

    Thank God for the character list. I can’t remember a novel with a list like that. (Some could have used it.) I absolutely would have been lost as to who was who without that list. I kept having to refer to it. I’m not sure what it says if you feel you need to put that in your novel.

    Why were the Chicou brothers in the story? Their appearance was jarring.

    • Thanks, Kevin. And for participating.
      I was thinking of you while reading this and sure it wasn’t going to be your favorite this year.
      I think she did a good job and found it wise she didn’t try to describe the war in the desert or the mountains as when she wrote the book, little was known about what was going on.
      Battle of Algiers being a movie, covers the complexities even better but i still think she did it well.
      Of course, calling her novel Children of the New World, indicates she’s going to show a new society and “new women” was part of that. She’s a feminist writer, no doubt about that.
      I think the Chicou nrothers serve as a means to illustrate Algerinas gone bad – the drinking etc. The book could have done without them but I think she needed some more male characters to really turn this into a canvas.
      My book had no such list btw. I wonder which edition you read?
      I had to read it in English as well as last year it wasn’t available in French. There is a new edition now.

      • This was not the worst title of this year’s readalong for me. It was a chore to read it, I have to admit that. But if God is a woman, I’m thinking I’ll get some credit.

        The fact that your copy did not have the list of characters indicates to me that someone determined there was a need for that. Here is an example: Ali, 26 or 27, medical student, Lila’s husband, Cherifa’s brother (in the resistance in the mountains). Also, they were put in order of appearance. BTW the Chicou brothers did not make the list. There are more than 20 characters listed. Maybe that’s too many for a novel.

        I do not know what edition I read, but it was published by The Feminist Press. That tells you something.

        • Shame on me! I’ve got that list as well. I thought you said was in the back. I never even saw it, two pages were sticking together. Hmm I must admit it might have come in handy. I knew some of the names but others which were not that familiar were harder to kee in mind.
          I thought it was a very quick read. I wan’t to see you list the books at the end of the year. I’m curious to find out which will make your worst and which will make the best.
          I so far I liked The Wars and Flowers of War best. Elizabeth Bowen was a chore.

  5. I did not know that torture was used extensively in the Algerian War. When I was in France, I got the impression that there were feelings of shame about Algeria. No one wanted to talk about it at all, so I dropped the subject. I look forward to learning more, so will definitely be reading this.

    • Yes, it’s a source of shame and controversy. There are still people in denial.
      My father fought in this war for over three years. So did my late uncle who was in psychiatric care later as he was an intelligence officer. We all know by now what that means.
      My father suffered from PTSD but at least, having been drafted at 18 and not having tortured anyone, he managed to live with it. He told me some pretty awful stories though and no book or movie could ever surpass those accounts.
      It’s a very interesting book and it’s not too hard to read. We know what happens but are spared the details.

  6. This looks to be a worthwhile book. It has been a few years but I remember La Bataille d’Algers was certainly a worthwhile film.

    I too have relatives, blood related to my wife who fought in this war.

  7. That’s a dirty war, even dirtier than others because of the torture. I think it’s the last time they sent non professional soldiers to war. It left scars on both sides and the men who came back don’t talk about it.
    It’s starting to change, we hear more about it now.

    From a purely technical point of view, it was a civil war since Algeria, unlike other colonies, was a department of France. From a human point of view, it was only fair that Algeria claimed their independence.

    It divided the intelligentsia in Paris and the “métro Charonne” events weren’t glorious either.
    Have you read Elise ou la vraie vie by Claire Etcherelli?

    • I’ve got Etcherelli but haven’t read it.
      Well, yes, in theory it was a civil war, it’s also a fact that it was won by France from a military persepctive but lost from a political one.
      I’ve expressed my views elsewhere and I’m not going to elaborate here. It overshadowed my whole life. I’m not sure it was the last time non-professionals were sent as the military service was mnadatory in France for much longer but it is possible.

      • The next generation of men are my father, uncles, parent’s friends. They’ve all done their service (only men born after 1978 didn’t spend months in th army) but I’ve never heard any of them saying they left France and actually fought somewhere.

        • I suppose my father was unlucky then, born one year later, he’d have escaped it. He was the youngest in the compnay and a month after his return the war was over.
          My cousins served in Germany, which does hardly count as fighting.

  8. I prefer war novels that aren’t based on battle scenes but on how the people survived and how they were affected. This sounds like something I may like. too bad the library doesn’t have a copy.

  9. It does sound interesting, but perhaps a bit of a slog due to the structural issues and from what it sounds like a slightly over-sprawling cast list.

    Have you seen Haneke’s Cachet? It’s a brilliant film and deals in part with how France chose to forget the conflict and its aftermath, including a horrific incident in the 1960s when Paris police massacred Algerian protesters killing scores of them (a couple of hundred according to wikipedia). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_massacre_of_1961

    • Thanks, Max, that somehow escaped my attention. I’ll have to get it.
      I didn’t think it was a slog, it just too more attention as we are not familiar with the names but most of the time it was celar who was who as they came from such different backgrounds and where shown in very different settings.

  10. I’m a Djebar fan, so I will have to get to this one at some point. I always liked very much the way that she focused on the woman’s world in Algeria, not least because it was so invisible, so hidden. When she was growing up, women were not allowed to speak saying ‘I’, and younger women had to defer to their elders. Nor were they allowed out in public; they could visit the baths once a week in the evenings, otherwise they had to remain in their domestic space. This feeling of displaced identity moves through all her books, I think, and is seen in the way she removes a central protagonist from them for the most part. The overpowering subjectivity of most Western texts is notably absent, and instead you often get the mosaic effect, lots of fragmented stories that look away from the main conflict and its violence. She also wrote a lot about the way that Algeria had a culture of war, but not one of love. It makes sense that she would turn away from the war itself to see what its effects had been on ordinary life. I find her a really intriguing writer.

    • Thanks for this, Litlove. I agree, she is intriguing and it’s what fascinated me in this book. The war is one element but what she truly captures is how many different lives the women live. This was aworld in transition. I say “was” because I think the real transition, in the end, didn’t happen.

    • That’s the word I was looking for–a mosaic–that’s the way the bits and pieces of stories felt like. I always enjoy reading the comments that follow your posts, Caroline. I wonder what other books you have read Litlove and if some others are worth searching out?

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