The Last Summer of Reason & The Watchers

The Last Summer of Reason (Paperback), by Tahar Djaout
Republished by Bison Books,University of Nebraska Press.
Lincoln and London: 2007

The Watchers, by Tahar Djaout.
Original title: Les Vigiles.
Published by Ruminator Books. St. Paul, Minnesota: 2002

This review begins with a confession. When I first saw a copy of The Last Summer of Reason while browsing in a bookstore off Harvard Square, it wasn’t Tahar Djaout’s name that caught my eye, but the name of Wole Soyinka, who supplied the introduction to this short novel. Intrigued as to whom Soyinka, Nigeria’s 1986 Nobel laureate in literature, might take the time to introduce, I quickly discovered a writer who merited such attention. Born in Algeria, Djaout was assassinated in 1993, an event attributed to members of the Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist group that interpreted Djaout’s writings as a threat to their interests and those of other Muslims. Djaout had been a novelist, poet, and journalist, publishing eleven books total by the time of his death at the age of 39. He received the Prix Mèditerranèe for his novel The Watchers (Les Vigiles), originally published in 1991. All told, a life and promising career in literature cut short for political reasons, a situation no doubt familiar to Soyinka who has similarly dodged the capricious violence of postcolonial Nigerian politics. But what is his writing like, beyond these tragic circumstances?

Recently released in paperback, The Last Summer of Reason was found as an unedited manuscript among Djaout’s belongings after his death. Soyinka describes it as a “posthumous allegory . . . beamed at the complacent conscience of the world,” and it certainly does contain a political purpose, in many ways appearing as a prophesy of Djaout’s own fate. The story is a simple one: Boualem Yekker, the story’s central protagonist, is a bookstore owner in an unnamed coastal town in a country meant to approximate an imagined Algeria of the near future. The state is fundamentalist in orientation, led by a group known as the Vigilant Brothers. Given this context, Boualem is consequently forced to watch his every move, for fear of receiving some form of punishment or a violent end at the hands of this intolerant regime. Djaout successfully creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, with the city feeling simultaneously empty and ready to explode in violence. However, despite this sense of menace on each page, not much happens. Djaout describes Boualem’s day-to-day life, takes us through his dreams and memories, and leaves us in the end with the immensity of an uncertain future. We read of a final vacation with his family (the “last summer” of the title), his friend Ali Elbouliga, his unconventional political opinions, a vivid nightmare involving his son. An ironic process of character development therefore occurs – the more he loses, the fuller his character becomes – with Boualem’s life being one of increasing isolation, where his children, family, and even his books gradually fail him. By the end of the novel, he, like the reader, is left hollowed out.

Taken as a whole then, The Last Summer of Reason resembles other dystopian novels such as Orwell’s 1984 or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The individual versus the state provides the primary dramatic tension. There is also an affinity with Camus’ The Stranger, with its Algerian locale, its concise prose style, and its modern, existential angst. However, Djaout’s novel falls short in embodying a philosophical perspective in the same way that Camus’ does. There is a set of politics to be sure, with a clear critique against the oppressive nature of fundamentalism towards individual freedom. However, this message – often dogmatically pursued within the text – comes off as a conventional political stance rather than a deeper, philosophical one. The slightness of the story therefore, unfortunately, serves to undermine any larger achievement. Given the unfinished nature of the manuscript, one is left to wonder what it might have become had Djaout been able to finish it.

The Watchers provides something of an answer. Reading this novel after The Last Summer of Reason, one is gripped with a fuller sense of Djaout’s ability with allegory as well as his capacity to draw a broader social and historical panorama. This expansiveness is to some extent achieved by doubling up. This novel contains two characters: Menouar Ziada, a veteran of an (again) unnamed country’s revolutionary movement, and Mahfoudh Lemdjad, an aspiring – and potentially seditious – inventor whom Menouar is assigned to watch over. Mahfoudh has designed a loom – symbolism intended – and goes through a process of applying for a patent and then for a passport to present his invention at a fair in Heidelberg. These situations are (no surprise) Kafkaesque with their combination of surface absurdity and hidden threat. If Mahfoudh finds himself confronted with the suspicion and inertia of the state, Menouar in parallel finds himself questioning the legacy of his past participation in that state’s revolution and his current role as one of its supposed defenders. Each experiences periods of introspection, with Djaout supplying dialogue pregnant with political import. Menouar: “Does having liberated the nation give one the right to be so heavy a burden on it, to confiscate its riches as well as its future?” Mahfoudh: “Aren’t we running the risk of being carried back centuries in time and losing the values that people have created with their sweat and blood, such as democracy, sexual equality, individual freedom, freedom of expression, and religious freedom?” Djaout’s central theme of the individual versus the state again surfaces.

Menouar and Mahfoudh appear destined to meet; although, without foreclosing the ending, Djaout leaves a surprise. The novel finishes by underscoring the dangers of both resisting and collaborating with the state. In this sense, Djaout offers a striking allegory regarding the complex legacy of postcolonial Algeria, with its origins in a violent anti-colonial revolution and its contemporary struggles between secular and religious political parties. The individual, caught in these changing, fluid social conditions, is forced to decide between the risk of affiliation versus the risk of individual desire. The past, present, or future: none offers comfort or certainty in this matter.

The transparency of politics within Djaout’s fiction may, for some readers, become tedious. As briefly hinted at above, his characters do not often speak about the mundane, only the political or metaphysical. The sense that they are intended to express Djaout’s own opinions is consequently pervasive, with their development as fully achieved persona feeling limited. However, unlike 1984, The Last Summer of Reason does not take place in a distant future but appears as an expression of what is currently happening or, at the least, what might happen in the very near future. Djaout’s death all but confirms this. In leaving these books, one is forced to consider this entanglement between fact and fiction, to ponder what Djaout might have accomplished. By leaving these books, Djaout suggests a path of clear ambition and, in all likelihood, eventual importance.

– Christopher J. Lee