The Algerian Historical Novel

Linking the Past to the Present and Future

by Abdelkader Aoudjit (Author)
©2020 Monographs X, 180 Pages


During the last thirty years, Algerian novelists have shown and continue to show a marked interest in the history of their country; some of them, however, approach the past in a manner that is significantly different from that of traditional historical novelists. The Algerian Historical Novel: Linking the Past to the Present and Future investigates for precisely what purpose, on what philosophical grounds, and using what techniques, novelists Rachid Boudjedra (La Prise de Gibraltar), Tahar Djaout (L’Invention du désert), Assia Djebar (Loin de Médine), Waciny Laredj (La Maison andalouse), Mohamed Sari (Pluies d’or), and Amin Zaoui (Le Dernier juif de Tamentit) engage with the history of Algeria. It also examines what the study of these authors can contribute to the larger debate concerning what this type of historical fiction can do with or reveal about the past that history as a discipline and the traditional historical novel cannot. The author advocates that La Prise de Gibraltar, L’Invention du désert, Loin de Médine, La Maison andalouse, Pluies d’or, and Le Dernier juif de Tamentit are best read as works of historiographic metafiction. He argues that these novels combine poststructuralist ideas and postmodernist narrative techniques to draw attention to previously neglected people and events in history and provide revised perspectives on them and others and, more importantly, to problematize the way Algerian history is thought and is used to address two major social and political concerns confronting Algerians: national identity and religious fundamentalism. The Algerian Historical Novel: Linking the Past to the Present and future is highly recommended to students, scholars, and general readers interested in Algerian literature and in historiographic metafiction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: National Identity, Religion, and History in Algerian Historiographic Metafiction
  • Chapter One: Warriors and Storytellers: Assia Djebar’s Loin de Médine
  • Chapter Two: The Enemy Is in Front of You and the Sea Behind: Rachid Boudjedra’s La Prise de Gibraltar
  • Chapter Three: All Geography and No History: Tahar Djaout’s L’Invention du désert
  • Chapter Four: Pirates and Capitalists: Waciny Laredj’s La Maison andalouse
  • Chapter Five: Caught between Two Religions and One God: Amin Zaoui’s Le Dernier juif de Tamentit
  • Chapter Six: Part Don Quixote, Part Savonarola: Mohamed Sari’s Pluies d’or
  • Conclusion: History, Fiction, Historiographic Metafiction
  • Timetable of Turning Points in Algerian History and of Writers and Texts
  • Glossary
  • Works Cited
  • Index
  • Series index

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I would like to thank Bill Fleming, outreach and reference services librarian at Northern Virginia Community College, for getting me all the books I asked for from the four corners of the country. I would also like to thank my colleagues Jennifer Wandrey and Stefanie Shipe for reading a couple of chapters each. I am most grateful to Amy DiGiovine, my best reader and critic, for our many conversations on literature and for her unwavering encouragement and support over the years.

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National Identity, Religion, and History in Algerian Historiographic Metafiction

In 1967, Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui wrote in L’Idéologie arabe contemporaine (Contemporary Arab Ideology) that for three quarters of a century the intellectuals and politicians of the Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) and the Mashrek (Middle-East) had been preoccupied with four issues representing four ideals: authenticity, continuity, universality, and artistic expression (Idéologie 4). First, there is the issue of how to define their collective identity. Second is the issue of what attitude to adopt toward the past, which is the most basic issue because it is frequently with respect to history that the questions of identity and other questions are posed (73). This leads naturally to a reflection on what theoretical framework would enable them to understand their predicament and to act in order to improve the condition of their societies—the third issue. The fourth issue has to do with the search for the mode of literary or artistic expression that is most adequate to describe the current situation of the region and best serves the intellectuals’ purpose (Idéologie 4).

Laroui divides the responses to these searching interrogations into three types: 1) that of the clerics, who advocate a return to an earlier form of religious life (Idéologie 22, 39–45); and two other positions, which he calls “eclectics” in La Crise des intellectuels arabes (The Crisis of the Arab Intellectuals), who think that their societies can join modernity without giving up long-held traditional practices and modes of thinking: 2) that of the politicians, who equate modernity with ←1 | 2→liberal political institutions (Idéologie 3, 24, 41) and, 3) that of the technocrats, who believe that modernity is a question of technology and industry (Idéologie 26–27). He adds that the three types of intellectuals parallel the colonial, the liberal, and the national states.

Laroui is critical of both of the ways the intellectuals of the Maghreb and the Mashrek framed the issues and the solutions they advocated. One of their weaknesses, according to him, is their uncritical attitude toward modernity. Another is their belief that modernity can be implemented selectively (122–123). However, their principal weaknesses, he argues, is their ahistoricism, that is to say, their tendency to ignore history and historical development. Indeed, in the preface to the English translation of La Crise des intellectuels arabes, he writes that “The central thesis of this book is that the concept of history—a concept playing a capital role in “modern” thought—is in fact peripheral to all the ideologies that have dominated the Arab world till now” (Crisis viii). He adds that “ahistorical thought leads to only one result: not seeing the real, and if we translate this into political terms, we are saying that it reinforces dependence on all levels” (Crisis 190). He infers that “to espouse and propagandize a ‘historicist’ rationale,” by which he means an ensemble of ideas that includes Enlightenment values concerning human rationality, a belief in the unity of history and of mankind, a concomitant belief in the inevitability of societal progress, and a focus on elites as the source of social change, is the only approach that “offers a rationale for collective action” (Crisis x–xviii, 88–89). He concludes that when the countries of the region are measured in terms of their position vis-à-vis universal history, it becomes clear that if they want to advance, they have no choice but to break with the past and embrace modernity, which, although it first took shape in the West, represents the end-point of the sociocultural development of humanity (Idéologie 46, 125). For Laroui, joining universal history entails not only the rejection of what he thinks are outdated and irrational modes of thinking such as religion but also the giving up of all forms of “particularism” and “exclusivism” as well as all search for “authenticity” (Idéologie 213).

With respect to what form of expression can best describe the situation of the countries of the region, Laroui objects to the writers’ “applications, in a given society, of rules of expression and of composition, designed elsewhere” (193). Thus, according to him, neither romanticism nor realism is capable of depicting accurately the situation of the Maghreb. The former because it is turned toward the past and is reactionary (183), the latter because it is bourgeois and urban and most of the population of the region were at that time peasants (202). Laroui is particularly critical of Francophone writers who, he says, produce “folkloric works” that are “culturally safe,” and thus, remain dependent on the colonialist representations of the Maghreb as a land of “traditional culture” (178). He is also critical of ←2 | 3→those who use the poetic classical Arabic on the grounds that it is not appropriate to depict abject poverty and misery and cannot, therefore, help engage in social critique. Instead, he advocates “nationally specific” literatures and arts that are congruent with the infrastructure of societies and at the same time question radically the traditional literary forms, the kind of modernist literature he engages in his novels Al-ghorba (Being Away from Home) and Al-yatim (The Orphan).

The countries of the Maghreb (especially Algeria) have, since Laroui wrote his influential books, undergone major social, economic, and political transformations as has the world at large. During the last fifty years, Algeria has experienced profound social and cultural transformations, the results of the government’s ambitious program of modernization. The successive Algerian governments established a new public administration, built new industries, and expanded the means of communication with the construction of new railroads and modern highways. Public education has received the greatest attention; it receives 40% of the state budget. Before the independence of the country, education was a privilege reserved for Europeans; a meager 18% of Algerian children went to school. All these transformations led to population growth and urbanization and raised the standard of living of Algerians as well as their expectations.

Modernization has never been a painless process anywhere. In Europe, industrialization and the break with the Ancien Régime, relying on the principles of the Enlightenment, were achieved at the expense of the colonies and the working class whose miserable living conditions are described by Charles Dickens and Emile Zola. As Emile Durkheim (1966), Max Weber (1958), and the Frankfurt school philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno pointed out (1972), modernity has its dark side. They warned of the risks of alienation, the breakdown of bonds between individuals and society, the commodification of all aspects of life, and the iron-cage of bureaucracy. Many contemporary social thinkers such as Jean-François Lyotard (1984) remain deeply ambivalent about modernity. The process of modernizing a country in the wake of colonialism and the destructions it brought about is even more complicated. It is made still more difficult by Algeria’s dependence on oil exports for economic growth and the demands of predatory international financial institutions (The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund). The gains Algeria made in infrastructure, transport, education, and health-care were accompanied in the first few years after the War of Independence by the erosion of traditions already battered by colonialism, sometimes stifling bureaucracy, rural exodus, and the rise of religious extremism. In the late 1980s, a series of economic crises, including the fall of oil prices, and thus state revenues, exacerbated the country’s social and economic problems. These problems, together with the crisis of legitimacy of the Front de Libération Nationale (National liberation ←3 | 4→Front, FLN), which has been in power since 1962, paved the way for the Islamic fundamentalists who were poised to win the second round of legislative elections in 1992, and thus turn Algeria into an Islamic state.

Along with the social, economic, and political transformations that have taken place in the world in the past fifty years, a far-reaching transformation has also occurred in the humanities, especially in the wake of poststructuralism. Thus, even though Laroui moved in the right direction by debunking “the absolutes of language, culture, and the saga of the past” (Crisis 156), he did not go far enough in his critique of essentialism. Also, his historicism is, by poststructuralist standards, wrong and, more importantly, pernicious, because it seeks to obliterate all differences between cultures. More disturbingly, it unwittingly reinforces the claims of the colonialists who argued that the Maghreb was backward and needed to be civilized and dismissed Islam as an alien imposition. Furthermore, poststructuralism has rendered realism and modernism both misguided and unfashionable. The former because it “presumes the transparency of the medium and thus the direct and natural link between sign and referent or between words and world” (Hutcheon, Politics 34); the latter because its adherents lament the multiplicity of points of view that is characteristic of the age as something to mourn rather than celebrate and still think they can recover the lost coherence and unity of culture through art (Lyotard 79–81).

Despite the social and political transformations that have taken place in Algeria in the last four decades, the questions of authenticity, continuity, universality, and artistic expression remain major preoccupations of Algerian writers. Authors Rachid Boudjedra (La Prise de Gibraltar, The Capture of Gibraltar; 1987), Tahar Djaout (L’Invention du désert, the Invention of the Desert; 1987), Assia Djebar (Loin de Médine, Far from Medina; 1991), Waciny Laredj (La Maison andalouse, the Andalusian House; 2017), Mohamed Sari (Pluies d’or, Rains of Gold; 2015), and Amin Zaoui (Le Dernier juif de Tamentit, The Last Jew of Tamentit; 2013)—the focus of this study1—reexamine familiar narratives of Algerian past and their assumptions to revise how history is understood and how it is used so that it addresses Algerians’ current concerns. Furthermore, drawing on a range of new developments in philosophy and literary theory, they also ponder traditional assumptions of the humanities—universality, truth, objectivity, and progress. Finally, these authors are concerned with what structures, shapes, and narrative techniques best fit their philosophical assumptions and best serve their goals; they believe that what a text says and how it says it are inextricably linked. As Terry Eagleton puts it:

The goal of this study is to investigate for precisely what purpose, on what philosophical grounds, and using what techniques, Algerian novelists Boudjedra, Djaout, Djebar, Laredj, Sari, and Zaoui engage with the history of their country. It also examines what the study of these authors can contribute to the larger debate concerning what, if anything, this type of historical fiction can reveal about the past that history as a discipline cannot.

Algerian writers’ interest in history is quite understandable; history questions are in many ways central to other questions concerning politics and identity. History is often looked at—in Algeria and elsewhere—to find solutions to current social and political problems. The religious fundamentalists, for instance, think they can make sense of and find a way out of Algeria’s current problems in the supposedly paradisiac age of the Prophet and the Rightly Guided Caliphs who succeeded him. History is also frequently used either to legitimize or delegitimize structures of authority, institutions, and policies. The War of Independence is used both by the Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front, FLN) to justify its rule and by its detractors to deny it legitimacy on the grounds that the way it has so far governed the country is contrary to the ideals for which the War was fought. At a more fundamental level, however, history is evoked to articulate and assert a national identity and thereby elicit a sense of collective pride and allegiance to a state or a nation by celebrating its past strengths and achievements. Throughout the French occupation of the country, Algerian nationalists highlighted the longevity of the Algerian nation and extolled the resistance of Jugurtha and Emir Abdelkader to foreign invaders to mobilize the population.


X, 180
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. X, 180 pp.

Biographical notes

Abdelkader Aoudjit (Author)

ABDELKADER AOUDJIT is Professor of Philosophy at Northern Virginia Community College. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Georgetown University, Washington DC. He is the author of The Algerian Novel and Colonial Discourse:Witnessing to a Différend (Peter Lang, 2010) and Algerian Literature: a Reader’s Guide and Anthology (Peter Lang, 2017).


Title: The Algerian Historical Novel