Narration must not tell the story.
This essay has a serendipitous trigger in the encounter that took place in March 1998 between two filmmakers who are also writers, Trinh Minh-Ha and Assia Djebar. The latter had invited the former to a symposium on women’s cinema under the joint sponsorship of the Center for Francophone Studies and Women’s Studies at Louisiana State University. Their exchanges revealed a surprising number of ideological, conceptual, and technical confluences: the beliefs that in the struggle between image and sound wherein the filmic project first takes shape, they privilege sound as the most unmediated of media; that the primacy of the aural imaginaire over the visual leads them to emphasize form over content and, as a consequence, to rely on a self-referential suturing of image and sound; finally, that such a self-referential gesture must stabilize transparent meaning the better to compel audience participation. Here were two artists who, though they had never met face to face before, concurred that a narrative cannot come to closure until it engages simultaneously its own artifice and the decoders of said artifice, their audience. Concluded Assia Djebar, in a session on La nouba des femmes du mont Chenoua: “La narration ne doit pas raconter l’histoire mais l’interrompre: c’est à dire, la suspendre, la surprendre à tout prix” ‘Narration must not tell the story but interrupt it: which is to say, suspend it, surprise it at all costs.’1
The conceptual fusion of viewers as readers and readers as viewers is typical of the Djebarian oeuvre. A good deal of her stories’ complexities depend on the same narrative devices that in her films foreground sound over sight. The present essay explores the way in which these principles, developed in the first film experiment, gradually operate a mise-en-abyme of the interpretive process itself in two short stories that conceptually bracket the making of the film. It is my contention that “La femme qui pleure” (first published in the 1980 collection, Femmes d’Alger) and “La femme en morceaux” (part of the 1997 Oran, langue morte) suspend narrative closure by staging a series of “disconnect” effects between sound and image, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, by engaging obvious intertexts: for “La femme qui pleure,” a reference to Picasso’s portrait of Dora Mar, and for “La femme en morceaux,” an episode of female beheading found in The Arabian Nights. Separated by almost twenty years, the two stories nevertheless share a primary thematics (the place of women within a coercive socius and its resulting body politics). They function as a dyadic, chiasmic construction wherein each participates in the narrative flow of the other [End Page 108] and vice-versa. Unmoored from the first story, Picasso’s intertext could just as well apply to the second story, just as Arabian Nights, unmoored from the second story, nicely fine-tunes the first.
The first story was published in the 1980 collection but written through 1978, at the time Djebar was editing La nouba and grappling with the question of sound. The second appeared in 1997, in a collection indebted to the long disquisitions on the voice and the gaze (themselves part of the diary kept while filming) that Djebar had already used in the 1995 Vaste est la prison. As she has said many times, including the 1979 series of interviews we conducted for the American version of Femmes d’Alger, the radical change in her corpus was triggered by her experiment with cinema.2 “La femme qui pleure” blocks our entry on the stage of retelling, forcing us to overhear from a distance fragments of a confession not meant for us, whereas “La femme en morceaux” gradually draws us into a negotiated reading so that we become one of the very listeners to whom it must be retold. The first short story forecloses participation; the second foregrounds it. From the standpoint of structure, they are mirror versions of each other, for each calls forth its obverse side in the other, a violent history...