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Ahlam Mostaghanemi's MEMORY IN THE FLESH
By Kim Jensen
A Literature Born from Wounds
Ahlam Mostaghanemi's 'Memory in the Flesh'
Memory in the Flesh
By Ahlam Mostaghanemi, Translated by Baria Ahmar Sreih
The American University in Cairo Press, 2000
By Kim Jensen
Published simultaneously in Algeria and Lebanon in 1993, "Dhakirat al Jasad" took several years to gain the recognition that it presently enjoys. Having won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for literature in 1998, this novel went on to become very popular in the Arab world, selling an unprecedented 50,000 copies. Though there had been unfounded allegations that Ahlam Mostaghanemi was not the author of the book, under closer scrutiny these rumors evaporated. And so with this poetic novel and its sequel, "Fawdat al Hawas" (Chaos of the Senses), which has yet to be translated into English, Mostaghanemi takes her place among the outstanding women writers of the Arab world.
It is important to note at the outset that I have not read "Dhakirat al Jasad." What I have read is "Memory in the Flesh," Baria Ahmar Sreih's English version of the book. Although I am in the habit of reviewing translations from the Arabic, it seems that in this case the distinction is particularly noteworthy. Mostaghanemi set out to write an Algerian novel in Arabic rather than in French, and, in fact, she was the first Algerian woman to accomplish this. Therefore, her entire literary endeavor is an organic one in which the struggle for Algerian independence is enacted in the poetic and conflicted texture of the work.
"'Memory in the Flesh' remains much more than a love story; it is an allegory about the tortured fate of Algeria and perhaps the whole Arab world in its struggle for freedom."
Mostaghanemi's choice to "turn away" from the French audience and to direct her voice towards her own people is an important context in which to read this work. When seen in this light, the book's inventive form and language present a troubling and confrontational alternative to the social and political norms in the Arab world. Reading this work in translation, and in a radically different setting, makes it difficult to gauge the impact of the original work.
"Memory in the Flesh" is the impassioned and embittered monologue of Khaled, a painter who fought, and lost his left arm, in the Algerian revolution. The writing is addressed - almost in epistolary style - to a young novelist, Ahlam, the daughter of a famous and revered revolutionary martyr, Si Taher. During the revolution, Khaled was a close friend and comrade of Si Taher's; and when Ahlam was born in Tunisia, it was Khaled who brought word to Si Taher's wife that the baby (already named "Hayat") should be registered officially as "Ahlam."
Twenty years later, when Khaled encounters Ahlam by surprise at an exhibit of his paintings in Paris, he falls in love with her although he is old enough to be her father. To Khaled, an ex-patriot, ex-revolutionary who has suffered war, exile, and dismemberment, Ahlam ("Dreams") is the embodiment of his long lost friendship with Si Taher, his distant homeland, and the city of his youth - Constantine. When Ahlam appears in his life, adorned with the traditional gold jewelry of East Algeria that reminds him of his mother, Khaled is transported to a time when he himself was whole. "I condemned you to be my Casantina," Khaled writes, "and condemned myself to be insane."
Khaled's much hoped-for reunion with the Algeria of his past proves to be a futile and hopeless chimera. The exiled artist places all of his hopes and desires in this love, a mad love that is not destined to be reciprocated. In the great tradition of Arab romance from "Majnoun Leila" all the way to the lyrics sang by Farid al-Attrache and Om Kalthoum, Khalid is single-minded in his passion. He stakes his entire emotional structure on Ahlam, only to be shattered by inevitable disappointment. Although she is Si Taher's own daughter, she cannot be the bridge back to those earlier times, nor the bridge to a better future. She belongs to a new generation that "found all things too heavy to carry, that exchanged old Arabic dresses for modern ones, that summarized all of history in one or two pages."
Constructed of lyrical passages, descriptions, and meditations from Khaled's perspective, "Memory in the Flesh" is a highly charged piece of writing. Throughout the length of the work, Khaled reflects on the deep wounds inflicted by Ahlam's "cruelty," his theories about the role and meaning of art, his ideas about the political and social disasters in post-revolutionary Algeria, and about the failures of his country's ruling elite. The text is replete with speculative questions that infuse the work with an open-ended, grieving quality. The searing doubts of an unrequited lover are refracted and enlarged in an atmosphere of mourning: for Si Taher, for Khaled's brother Hassaan, who is killed in the end by Algerians, and for his friend Ziad, a Palestinian poet who dies at the hand of the Israelis.
Mostaghanemi's ability to sustain Khaled's male point-of-view throughout the novel is quite remarkable. We are treated to some rather thinly disguised masturbation references, mild sexual fantasy, and some strong male egocentricity and jealousy that can be construed as quite realistic. Although at certain moments one might see the dialogue in the novel as a flat platform for political and aesthetic pronouncements, the weight and momentum of the novel finally carry it beyond this level. Upon first analysis it appears that the love story in "Memory in the Flesh" would have been more believable, more compelling, and finally more devastating, if the two had actually become lovers, or at least had made promises and plans together. Even in the restrictive context of Arab morality, Mostaghanemi too carefully skirts the sexual connection between the characters, keeping their friendship chaste, but for one kiss. Khaled's sense of betrayal would have been more justified had the young Ahlam at least made some kind of promise to Khaled. Instead, she remains noncommittal and aloof towards him, leaving the reader wondering why he displays such unwarranted bitterness towards her.
But perhaps it is Khaled's lonely solipsism that makes the book even more complex, revealing yet another painful aspect of the distorted relations between man and woman in a society destroyed by war and colonialism. Although Khaled is portrayed as highly principled in his relations with Algeria's new elite, he is consequently pushed into a solitary narcissism that seems to render him blind to Ahlam's ambivalence. Ultimately, the unconsummated nature of their relationship becomes symbolic of the abortive experience of post-revolutionary Algeria, which gives birth to corruption, alienation, and violence, a terrifying progeny.
Although this novel was written at the very outset of the civil war, which has since claimed the lives of tens of thousands, there is a sense of foreboding in the work that seems to prefigure the coming horror. "Casantinians only come back for weddings and funerals," says Hassaan, Khaled's brother who later dies in Algerian violence. "Literature is born from wounds," remarks Khaled at several junctures. "We write novels in order to kill those who have become a burden on us," explains Ahlam, the young novelist. These statements about the intimate relationship between death, Eros, and art confirm the tragic essence of this Algerian story.
What is best about this book is the profoundly moving quality of certain passages, even in translation. The beginning and the end are the most gripping, and Khaled's homecoming to Constantine in particular is masterfully written. Algerians who have lived through the experience of returning to their homeland have been known to weep profusely upon reading Mostaghanemi's tender and stinging descriptions. "There was Casantina again and that beautiful destruction you spoke about that made me learn, like a slaughtered bird, the dance of pain."
In the end, "Memory in the Flesh" remains much more than a love story; it is an allegory about the tortured fate of Algeria and perhaps the whole Arab world in its struggle for freedom. When the daughter of an honored revolutionary winds up in a marriage of convenience with a shallow young representative of the corrupt nouveau riche, it makes for a strong indictment. But as in all tales of repression and unfulfilled passion, erotic longing is transformed into an endless desire, the desire to unleash the liberating forces that lie just below the surface of every unjust arrangement.
This article appeared in Vol. 8, no. 39 (Spring 2002).