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from the August 2009 issue

Seismic Activity

I am one of those writers who like to incorporate the short story in the novel. I did so in some novels, playing with forms. But to place the novel in the short story is another story, virtually impossible. All the more complicated as I write novels in French and short stories in English as a third language.

To instill the expansiveness of the novel into the instinctiveness of the short story has been one of my literary dreams for years. I have toyed with the idea till recently when I wrote Scène de pêche en Algérie (Fishing scene in Algeria) as an attempt to find for the novel a way into the short story. Special circumstances enabled me to try my hand at this unusual task: an earthquake that has wrought havoc in my country. Whatever the momentarily homeless writer does to pursue the writing of the novel, his efforts are constantly disrupted, atomized, deformed and epitomized in fragments of short stories by the ceaseless earth tremors. To melt the novel in the short story led me, among other things, to imagine books writing their authors.—Mohamed Magani


Saturday, January 10, 2004, 7:34 p.m. Located in the epicentral zone of the major earthquake of May 21, 2003, a strong earthquake tremor—5.8 on the Richter scale—breaks the seismic silence of the preceding weeks; panic ensues.

One summer in Germany, the obscure and tenuous link between literature and seismic activity tightened and took on all the solidity of a secure and binding knot. A connection that since childhood, in a long and winding course, had been no more than first a terrified anxiety about earthquakes and then a vague memory involving unformed notions and scattered, latent formulations that were to be transferred into the writing process, now rejoined the path leading to its source and reclaimed its earliest traces of the first seismic jolts.

Early one morning in 2002, on the fifth day of a summer visit to the Heinrich Böll house, which is generously placed at the disposition of writers and artists, my brutal awakening to the groaning and creaking of the wooden floor and the violent shaking of the bed sent me hurrying to the writing desk that had been avoided like the plague since my arrival.

As I found out later that evening, an earthquake—I had no idea they occurred in Germany—measuring 5 on the open Richter scale had just delivered the knock-out blow to a literary inactivity caused by my strange new surroundings and the unfamiliarity of both the house of a Nobel prize winner and of all I was discovering outside its confines. My fear of the blank page had evaporated.

I was now propelled to the work desk by a keen sense of urgency, of lost time needing to be made up and a desire to deliver an on-the-spot testimony. The few seconds of the earthquake at the Heinrich Böll house gathered up and concentrated in one violent movement the entire history of a literary activity characterized by hesitations, wrong turnings, and every kind of adversity—arising from family, social, professional, neighborhood and even climatic pressures. It was as though I suddenly saw, in the light of day, what had paved the way to a particular, subterranean approach to literature and to the novel that had been profoundly marked by seismic shifts, faults, and fractures and by the tattered shreds of the human condition.

Since the beginning of the 1990s, the main characteristic of Algerian literature has been its sense of urgency. It sees its principal duty as bearing witness to, almost "bombarding," political events in a photographic desire to document them, charging itself with drawing instant lessons from the national crisis, the "war against civilians," in reaction to its deliberate destruction of life, reason, and all oppositional consciousness. Urgency is the essence of contemporary Algerian literature, which takes its main task as that of informing the reader about society rather than of probing the human condition—the preeminence of the mass over the individual—in the ancient recipe for what might be termed exogenous creation. Despite its news value and fleeting nature, the literature of urgency sees only what manifests before its eyes, barely venturing into the territory of the intangible. In such conditions, should we hope for extreme natural events such as earthquakes, cyclones, and invasions by millions of migratory locusts—to which should even be added the effects of that "calamitous resource," petrol—in the expectation that they would enable this literature ultimately to find a distinctive voice and explore new modes of meaning other than the infernal violence of the 1990s? If it could do so, it would learn in some measure to stop compulsively bowing down to events and put aside its role as their omniscient witness and journalist, thereby opening up the way to clearer horizons and temporal autonomy.

If some sort of analogy can be drawn between seismic and literary activity, it certainly has little to do with the quantifiable data of seismology, the measurement of earth tremors or the number, frequency, and intensity of aftershocks, any more than it does with forecasts of seismic risks or descriptions of continental drift. At most, literature can pride itself on its insistence on the human—too human, hidden and sordid—qualities that arise from a metaphorical non-compliance with earthquake protection measures in buildings surrounded by dangers, and with the consequences on lives constantly teetering on the brink of death.

What is involved are, rather, connections relating to form and to quality. First of all, form, involving the effect of formidable earth tremors that remove all attempts at stability from the novel, which becomes a statue without a base. Secondly, qualitative: the effect on human experience, in the strict sense of the word, in all the various forms of its manifestations and life stories, as mediated by language—what, in other words, Richard Ford calls "the latent, nonfactual, undefined (one could say existential) data of human beings." In this way, the depiction and description of stories and narratives open the way to the fundamental facts of life, death, our brief passage on earth, the past and its imprint on the present, "the relationship between happiness and malediction" as Richard Ford again puts it, as well as of its accompanying emotions—in short, the highly unstable geographical zones that lie constantly on the perimeter of a person's daily life.

Seismology classifies faults as "normal," "strike-slip," and "reverse"; trying to find equivalents in the novel would be absurd. For the first of these, a simple parallel between an earthquake and the writing of a novel would attempt to locate the shock wave, the first and strongest on the Richter scale, which involves calculating its intensity and pinpointing its epicenter, while for the second, it would be enough to identify the biographical, or existential, moment that radiates out through the novel and sets it in motion, from an attitude either of strength or of frailty; this would be the location of the epicentral zone in the post-seismic novel. And then come the répliques, the aftershocks, of lesser intensity than the first shock wave but still capable of destroying lives and dwellings. They go on for months, getting weaker and weaker until they transform into "lullabies," to the point where the disaster victims relocate enough ironic strength to go and ask for a "réplique" instead of a replica at the local photocopy shop. In the novel, the prolongation of aftershocks gives rise to factual questionings about people's marital status, relationships between characters, places, and situations that are more or less real, more or less imagined and invented, combining to act as elements favorable to a recasting of the narrative thread.

When the time comes for the great postseismic debates that seek to determine the extent of the human loss and destruction and to allocate blame for the misfortune, explanations abound at the rate of the most fertile literary inspiration. They contain enough material for endless stories. The political lie machine, with its human, unrelenting face, gets to work on relieving itself of blame, everything being grist for the mill. It incriminates the workings of fate, the criminals dressed as entrepreneurs and property developers, re-evoking the chain of misfortunes that endlessly afflict the country and citing "God, nature, bad luck, the epicenter, the magnitude, the quality of the concrete, the design of a building's connecting nodes, private entrepreneurs, regulations, research, inspections and even the repeat football match that the (only) television channel had been about to show again." The literary lie keeps a low profile in the face of the evident superiority of the political one, which produces a delightful heap of new meanings—to the point, as one well-informed observer noted, of creating a mind-dizzying subdivision of the Richter scale into two: the "S Richter," as in scientific, for the rationally-minded, and "P Richter" for wide political consumption, aimed at creating and democratizing the great, infinitely political postseismic debate that gives information on human motivations, intensions, plans, and undeclared secrets.

Inexplicably, I called my first novel La faille du ciel [A Crack in the Sky], as though I had always instinctively carried the title in my mind. That was in 1982. The book came out in 1983, nearly thirty years after the earthquake of 1954 that devastated my native region. I had chosen this first title in unconscious reference to the nightmare that had nearly carried off my brother. I had witnessed a bag weighing a hundredweight slide down from the top of a pile of bags of wheat and crash onto the floor, a hairsbreadth away from him—a beloved and frail young man who was nonetheless stolen from his family by tuberculosis just as he was embarking on a life that was, despite his illness, stubbornly creative. He left behind him numerous manuscripts that my father, made illiterate by colonization, decided to burn one day in the belief that he was thereby permanently destroying the germs of a disease that threatened his family. However, this first, original auto-da-fé marked the deferred birth of another, more resistant germ: that of literature and the characters that inhabit it, alongside the people who inspire it, among whom this brother, isolated by illness and secluded by writing, would figure prominently, from the beginning of the postseismic novel and from the text of that first fiction.

The epicentral zone of La faille du ciel included in its orbit the profound fracture in the postindependence intellectual and moral superstructure, the systematic disillusion and disenchantment of a man who understands what is happening around him and is deeply perturbed by the notion that thought can be regimented, tamed, trained and put on display—and often sentenced to death. The man takes refuge in a family past that is both inseparably distant and familiar and in which he feels protected by the grace of a new tradition that he must literally unearth from a community kept in ignorance, generation after generation, by colonization. He embraces this past, in the sole aim of reconnecting, in a living, free way, with thought and literature.

If Esthétique du boucher [The butcher's aesthetics] seems to abandon the metaphor of the earthquake, it displays another face, like a novel without form, mixing aesthetics, choreography, geometry and gymnastics, alongside the public storyteller's narrative and gestural art. Yet it also conserves a good measure of seismic identity and history through its locations, which all lie within a twenty-mile radius that includes the towns and outskirts of El Asnam, a name that immediately evokes three major earthquakes, in 1934, 1954, and 1980. The characters of Esthétique de boucher also seek refuge in the bowels of a mountain, in a cave, in an attempt to refashion the world by leading a subterranean, libertarian life devoted to writing and free sex. In this intra muros existence, the mountain affords them the only habitat that is truly antiseismic, a shelter from the upheaval of the outside world.

In Le refuge des ruines, the location of the novel is once again El Asnam, the town devastated by three earthquakes. What is more, one of its principal characters nurses the dream that he will one day write an "unstable" novel that will push the boundaries of the possible, "that will seem to have been written by a seismograph." This same character, a long-time émigré, holds deep in his heart the image of an old man whose humble dwelling, made of clay and thatch, was set ablaze by the seismic tremor of 1980. The old man cannot bring himself to leave the immediate vicinity of the deep fracture in the earth and refuses to do so—not from defiance but from the simple desire to leave to his only son something of his long journey through life, even if nothing more than the fragment of a fault in the earth, a memory that cannot die.

These three novels repeatedly depict the earthquake, referring to it to differing extents and on differing levels. They summon it up so as to give historical context to facts and events, reminding us of its permanence in the region and associating it with other natural disasters or man-made calamities as a way of demonstrating the frailty of the human condition. They call on it as a metaphor of psychological and material demolition (or self-demolition). The ultimate, decisive contribution of the earthquake involves no less than a shattering upheaval of form, the precariousness and havoc wrought by a novel still to be born.

Distinction between form and content starts to blur. The earthquake throws them together into a dice shaker which it turns this way and that for its amusement, at vertiginous speed and in every direction. When the shaker occasionally falls and the dice roll out, one becomes aware of palpable possibilities of innovation and transcendence of form that subvert and disorganize the novel, sending narrative lines and meanings flying like so many sensitive and insensitive seismic waves, creating not the "frisson" beloved of Nabokov but attachment, the meeting of author and reader through unfinished, fragmented stories, in progress or in gestation. From that point, author and reader search for and greet each other, communicating despite or because of the fault in the earth that divides them.

May 21, 2003, 7:45 pm. The first shockwave of a high-intensity earthquake devastates the area east of Algiers and robs 3,000 people of their lives. The earthquake resurfaces with a crash into the novel underway in Algiers, far from El Asnam, surging up into it, threatening its foundations and clearly-defined walls of form, which now shake and tremble. The immediate aftershocks are unremittingly destablizing, the fracture furrowing deeper and deeper into the text. The worksite of the novel is no longer that peaceful spot, open to the soft winds of narration, in which stories gently unwind. Indeed, the "solid" structure envisaged as its framework is barely of any assistance. Its writing is prey to a permanent instability that weakens and ultimately destroys it; in doing so, creative possibilities of innovation break free and emerge through the text, in the shape of imaginary new para-seismic standards of construction and a solidarity with victims.

In one of the best definitions of form, Kenneth Burke writes "Form in literature is the stimulation and realisation of desires. A work possesses a form in so far as part of it leads the reader to anticipate another part, thereby gratifying him with order and progression." When, however, a work of fiction submits itself to the risks of seismic shift, taking on the psychological progression defined by Kenneth Burke, it cannot escape the upheavals that must overwhelm it from the inside. What the earthquake does is cut short all vague impulses toward anticipation—the desire for form and the embodiment in written, structured text. It introduces into the form a truth with which the writer is intimately familiar: for every elaboration of form there is an answering antiformal, or deconstructive, impulse, born from the conviction that one's own fiction will be forever fragmented and alien, imperfect and incomplete, driving the writer's vision and consciousness of the world into a corner, opening it up to the inexplicable, to a largely insignificant and random accumulation of all sorts of facts and events, unimportant details and incongruous, insubstantial questions. Everything becomes a matter of fiction and reflection: both the trivial and the important, the tangential and what might be called the antithesis to such dissected realities. In seismic conditions, the writer cannot reconcile himself to the progression of a beginning, middle, and end of a fiction. As Henry Miller writes, an author, unlike an architect, often rejects the design of his edifice: for the writer, a book is something to be lived, an experience, not a design to be executed following laws and specifications. This is the most suppressed revolt of an author confronted with a work of fiction, but it is a constant one, and its permanence calls on all the external resources that would violate the form, pervert it in the manner of an earthquake that also makes use of the antiformal to deform. The writer constructs his or her work ruin by ruin.

The theme, torn from the debris, and the uncertainty of this text seeking to be receptive to a nascent postseismic literature place faults into undeniable relief. According to seismologists, the seismic tremor of May 21, 2003, was unprecedented in that its aftershocks were hardly light tremors but were more or less indistinguishable in amplitude, intensity, and strength from the first convulsion of the earth. Earthquake and aftershock were one and the same. The victims' alarm grew when, month after week, year after month, they suffered aftershocks in a country that had long experienced seismic silence but which, sitting right on the edge of a tectonic plate, was in the front row of the collision and of continental drift. If the postseismic novel was no longer immune from tremors and aftershocks, would it now be destined to eternal precariousness and instability, to evolving without form—to a tolerance without end of the illegal entry of some brusque, profoundly destructive and disruptive visitor? If by some miracle it managed to relax enough to keep its shape for some moments, it would no longer be safe from the slow earthquake (the most recent discovery by seismologists and other observers attentive to continental drift).

A foreshadowing of this novel, in its never-to-be consolidated form, materialized before my eyes in the wake of the earthquake of May 21, which proceeded to rearrange my little study-library according to its own laws, principles, classification, philosophy, and intrinsic force.

On May 23, 2003, the door of my study obstinately refused to open. The efforts of a neighbor who had come to assist my own were no more successful. The door was supporting the entire weight of the metallic bookcase that had pierced it; a piece of gray metal could be glimpsed jutting out. The more we pushed, the more the metal gutted the door. Finally, the neighbor got into the room, where the sight that greeted us defied all notions of the acceptable and would have delighted theoreticians of chaos and poets of disorder.

It was as though a wrecking ball that had fallen out of the sky on its axis of symmetry had split the bookcase into two parts, which were now held up by the perforated door and the opposite wall. Overwhelmed by emotion, I nonetheless felt in attacking spirit, in no way discouraged from writing—a writer who had just discovered a hidden doorway of Inspiration with a capital I.

All the books had moved. The ground was littered with all the loose leaves from files and from research that had taken years to accumulate—at least three good decades. But miracles exist. On the narrow-topped work desk, perched high on its feet, at least fifty years old and inherited from a brother who had miraculously survived an earthquake but then succumbed to tuberculosis, a man who lived out his sentence while writing—on this remnant triumphantly sat the little typewriter (the fifth) given to me by friends. It had survived, she whom the "S Richters" and "P Richters" had not succeeded in felling. Sole survivor, she had a dignified allure and indeed could pride herself on many things: friendship, solidarity, loyalty to ideas and to the past, as well as the conscious willingness to follow her path no matter what, without regard to the cost. The books may have fallen, been ripped and emptied of their pages, huddling against each other from fear of being torn, but the typewriter spoke to them of survival and the force of ideas, dreams, and imagination to transcend the worst calamities. I picked it up as tenderly as one takes hold of a baby.

With infinite pains, the neighbor and I lifted the bookcase back up on its feet, holding it in a semblance of balance amid the creaking of the iron shelves and further disorder caused by falling books. All of the shelving was bent and dislocated out of shape. Nothing remained of the order that had allowed me to locate whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it, or of the classification and arrangement that I had taken such great pains to create. The bookcase had fallen down by itself, so as better to resist the incessant seismic aftershocks. Some of the books had leaped incredible distances and ended up at the entrance to a cupboard, which yawned wide with astonishment. Some had come out of their rows, plunging down in streamlined jumps, jostling their peers on the way, while yet others squirmed around on top of each other. Right at the top, Arabic literature was the most exposed to vertigo. The social sciences, stoically resistant under the voluminous yoke of criticism, had collapsed onto literature which, in its turn, had sought refuge in educational science. Anglo-American literature tottered dangerously. Despite deep chasms in their midst, French and Francophone literature held up through its breadth. The whole thing, the most unstable of entities, rested miraculously on the dictionaries, of several languages, that sat awkwardly atop boxes full of aged and yellowing documents.

This beautiful chaos, however, lasted only as long as an ephemeral art exhibition. Incessant aftershocks then succeeded in throwing everything to the floor. Metal shelves, great quantities of loose leaves, tables, shards of glass, fragments of machinery and the pieces of a fractured wardrobe were thrown together on the book-littered floor in this moving worksite of dissymmetry and disorder. What remained, despite everything, was the last vision of the library as it had been after the very first seismic wave. It augured a fine harvest of possibilities and the promise of new and significant forms for the novel.

When, after a new and violent shockwave, the neighbor and I raced down the staircase, trying to look as if we were going down at a normal, unhurried pace, I was surprised to find myself thinking again of Ken Kesey's declaration that he had stopped writing because he had had enough of playing at seismography—of recording events at a distance. Between two shockwaves, I was confident that I would find arguments that might convince him to take up the blank page once more.

The writer who has made his home in seismic civilization is forever a cross-border traveler, edged about by deep fissures and precipices, his existence lived out on the convulsions of the earth that force him to move, to launch himself on an eternal quest for some "other" sanctuary in which language, form, and structure offer him a safe resting place. With every fiber of his being he experiences the seismic maelstrom with the same intensity of a war, a forced march, an exile, a banishment, a painful proscription, a crisis of identity, or the repeated collapse of the world of books. The most powerful and destructive earthquake ever registered on a scale would assume no meaning if it did not take into account the emotions and intuitions of the writer, the variations and infinite possibilities of both the grandeur and baseness of human nature, and the resources and determinants of forces over and above the individual.


Wednesday December 1, 2004, 6:42 p.m. Strongly felt—5.7 on the Richter scale—an aftershock from the earthquake of May 21, 2003, shook buildings and dwellings and provoked a general movement of panic west of the capital.

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