GOWANUS Summer 2002

The Last Summer of Reason

A Review by Dana De Zoysa 

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The Last Summer of Reason
by Tahar Djaout
(Foreword by Wole Soyinka)
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Ruminator Books
1648 Grand Avenue
St. Paul, MN  55105
Originally published as Le Dernier été de la raison by Éditions du Seuil

First there comes the frighteningly hypnotic sermon, monotheism unto monolatry in a mere four pages. Fire and brimstone fulminating today from the pulpits of countless mosques just as it once did at witch burnings and entreaties to join the Crusade, and still does from the pulpits of countless revival tents in the religioeconomic deserts of fundamentalism. The sermon is all the more frightening because it starts with reasonable assumptions and ends in apoplexy--as does any conduct system in the hands of monolaters. The object of the sermon is, yes, the sinner wavering from the True Path; but more: the Self in both its manifestations: the urge to be individual, and the proclivity to ornament. Both, say the sermon, stray one's mind from the True Vision of God. 

Or to rephrase that: (1) OUR Truth. (2) OUR Vision. (3) OUR God. Water this trinity from a pulpit and watch the potted death plants grow. The history books are littered with the shards of the broken pots the plants outgrew. 

The year is 1992. Boualem Yekker lives in a revivalist version of 1984. The usual alpha males of society dominate Boualem's with a governance that prospers as a creosote plant prospers, poisoning everything around itself because that is the only way it knows how to survive. But Boualem is no mouse hiding behind go-along-with-it conformity. He is a bookseller--a knowledge dispenser--amid an ethos trying to exterminate knowledge. The Last Summer of Reason is the story of his progress: not of his life but of his soul.

Tahar Djaout was a good enough writer to borrow but not mimic. His is a 1984 of religious fanaticism in Algeria. He daubs just enough of the right taints to give you the idea--“VBs” (Vigilant Brothers) in lieu of the Thought Police; “Reign of Equity” in lieu of Big Brother-- without overdoing it on the colors. Convincing details convey just how far the insanity of a priori can go when men of the same priori try to outdo each other in interpretive fervor: In Boualem's world, spare tires are banned because God's will alone ordains whether you should or should not get to your destination. Husbands who “serve” their wives must enter the bed right foot first so to be one step ahead of the Devil. Why are priests so preoccupied with other men's sexual styles?

Resist the urge to pick on bearded mullahs in all this. Fear of Satan is fear of Self and Self is not of one time or one place. The Great Cultural Revolution brandished the Little Red Book. The Reign of Terror in France renamed the months to absurdities like Brumière because February was the month of fog and mist. The saffron fanatics of India today burn Christians alive in their jeeps. Buddhist monks fan the populace of Sri Lanka, and through them the politicians, into flames of ethnic war--and in fact have been doing so for the last 2,200 years. Point no fingers at the mindset that forces women to wear burqas until you've had a look at what centuries of priests have dreamed up for nuns. The double-standard misogyny at a frat-party beer bust or the locker room at The Citadel is little different from the misogyny that sliced off the breasts of Saint Anne. The mullahs are not new at this, just an easy diversion from Christianity's own historical record. A man who wants to kill will create his cause first and later call it just. His insecure followers will pave the road to truth with body counts, and the aides-de-camp of political correctness will turn nuisances of corporals into colonels of cruelty.

Algeria and the Arab lands differ in this: The desert is a spirit of place. It is about danger, uncertainty, colorlessness, life on a thread, an immense tremor of the sky spawning the immense tremble of the wind. It is above all irrational, and so does it mold minds. After the mind so made, comes history.

Over the last half-century, extreme reactions to extreme provocation --from overlords, moneylords, landlords, and classlords--became brokendream business plans in Dhaka, Kuala Lumpur, Karachi, Riyadh, to name but a few. Algeria's struggle for liberation from the “4-lords” of France lasted from 1954 to 1962. The victory resulted first in a flirt with socialism; then during the 1980s a romance with privatization and liberalization; and in 1989 an arranged marriage with multiparty democracy.

The clandestine tryst, however, was with the veil: Arabization. A political program to impose Arabic and Islamic cultural values on a land made of many other values besides Arab and Islam. Off Mr. Djaout's pen, this political setting was shaped into a religious 1984 that became his novel.

The root values, though, resisted, and a decade-long civil war resulted. One value was pre-Islamic Berber maraboutism--
venerating marabouts or saintly mystics and teachers who supposedly possess special spiritual powers. Maraboutism gave rise to secret brotherhoods with their own rituals and rites. It appealed to simpler folk who lacked the education to assimilate the complex ideas and linguistic delicacies of the Qur'an. Because of maraboutism's disdain for authority, Islamists tried to restrict its influence. Conservative Muslims found themselves clashing with maraboutists, left-wing students, and emancipated women's groups, all more or less at once. The result was extreme defensiveness, and an equally extreme lash-out in consequence. By 1990 the power of the pulpit had proved stronger than the press and the ballot, and fundamentalist imams (prayer leaders) gained control of Algeria's major mosques.

In the post-1990 tumult Tahar Djaout wrote two searing novels: Les vigiles (Early Warning Signs of an Illness) in 1990 and The Last Summer of Reason in 1992-93. Professor Patricia Geesey of the University of North Florida aptly sums up the Algerian literary climate of his time:

“Algerian writers consciously attempt to transcend basic political references as well as the immediate need simply to bear witness to current events...making the reader feel the consequences of living under siege.”

Tahar to a “T”. The Last Summer of Reason is less a novel than a flow-path, for there is no “plot” in the linear form of A, B, C and D--He gets killed/married/the new job/rides off into the sunset. The first six chapters thread a linear line: Yekker drives a road, reflects disconsolately in his bookshop with his only friend Ali Elbouliga, strums a mandolin that can no longer be publicly played (aside from the unGodliness of pleasure, there is the matter of the instrumentís obscene resemblance to a woman's belly). He reminisces about a family vacation amid nature, endures a stoning by neighborhood children, and reflects on the difference between himself, “... who had read some thousand books or more from Plato to Kawabata, by way of Mohammed Iqbal, Kazteb, Yacine, Octavio Paz, and Kafka” and the mullah entitled Vizier of Reflection who got his post by “[forbidding] himself any reading other than the Holy Book; that novels, essays, and other perverse ramblings were nothing but fancy notions he disdained and whose accounts he would settle on the day that the Almighty, keeper of the secret of hierarchies, gave him the opportunity.”

So God is going to be consulting this Vizier, is that the idea? No one in the mullarchy seems to have noted the irony of the All-Wise consulting the All-Ignorant.

The next chapter, ”The nocturnal tribunal,” the book's turning point,  describes a police blockade in which Boualem is taken prisoner and discovers that his own son is one of his accusers. In a moment of madness Boualem grabs his sonís gun and kills him, and ... wakes up from the nightmare. Literal, yes; symbolic the more, for Boualem thereafter is not the same.

What Mr. Tahar started as a story he ends as an exile's soliloquy on the metaphysics of what it means to be human, what it means to know a reason, what it does to one to see a bird fly, the sun set. Boualem Yekker merges the poet he thinks he is into the poet he really is:

Only dreaming is still allowed, to those who know how to find refuge in themselves. It is the only autonomous area that keep the prison wards at a distance. And so, for the lack of having a life, Boualem Yekker dreams. He replaces people with ghosts. He replaces the dwarfed history [of the Reign of Equity] limping along in its little shoes with the grandiloquent myth that lifts the world's wings with the breath of poetry.

On that song of his soul Self becomes nil. Religions are about Self; spirituality is about self; transcendence--epiphany, moksha, nirvana--is about the nil.

Mr. Tahar had a lovely, moving, evocative style. He slips in and out of omniscience, one page the narrator, another the clairvoyant, thence to reporter, then the mystic whose seed of conditionals--the woulds and coulds of faith and faith not--all of these rake Boualem Yekker across the velvet verbs of his soul. He resists the urge to smirk at totalitarianism's silliness. Instead he inks with a delicate brush: “Weather forecasts have been banned from television and no newspaper is authorized to publish them,” one character announces, “... for how can one argue and quibble over patterns known only to God.” 

Tahar Djaout was assassinated in 1993 by a man who admitted to acting on behalf of religious militants.

(Dana De Zoysa has a passion for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer’s paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at DanaDeZoysa@aol.com.)