Although Albert Memmi and Jean Déjeux once wondered whether the strong body of literature produced in the French language in the colonies would survive the generation that came of age with independence, there has hardly been a dearth of such works since 1962. In turn, the Beur generation of writers born on French soil has attracted scholarly attention. Now comes Racines de papier to operate a further recentering of the question of literary allegiance. Hence, the suitably tentative subtitle—an “essay,” a provisional exploration of a maddening variety: memoirs, private papers made public, newsletters of various associations, autobiographies, pamphlets, and full-blown novels. What unites them are two simple biological facts: the writers are all of European descent and born on Algerian soil. Therefore, two contradictory tropes circulate through this book, as they do through the works Lucienne Martini examines: (one) Mother-Algeria, the ahistorical, archaic figure essentializing the European claim on a precolonial motherland, and (two) decolonized Algeria, the historical experience of uprooting and displacement. This is a body of writing that, like Lot’s wife, looks back and seeks to commit to memory. For much like the Vietnam War for this country, the Algerian war functions for France like a Lacanian “return of the repressed,” giving birth to a body of writing that is still too close to its subtext.
Part overview, part analysis, Racines de papier seeks to give a general public ignorant of colonial realities a sense of this black hole in French memory. The literary historian will appreciate the informative survey of the period prior to the Algerian war, as well as the useful listing, year by year, from 1962 to 1995. I counted two hundred twenty such entries, not including the comics, to which Martini devotes over twelve pages.
She wields her psychoanalytical scalpel lightly to articulate three successive movements in the concentration of putative identities forced upon the sons and daughters of European settlers: first, the recriminations of forced exile; next, the melancholy of idealized mourning; and finally, a sober taking stock, healing the more obvious wounds. She examines the images the writers have presented of themselves and others, including their resentment toward France, the stepmother, as well as their blessed indifference or paternalistic ignorance toward those peoples who shared their native soil (Arabs, Berbers). She situates the plural audience to which they appeal, not only former friends and neighbors now in exile, pieds-noirs communities on French soil, but also Algerian friends left behind.
A motley book, then, but an intelligent one for those readers for whom the term pieds-noirs is not immediately heavy with meaning (she explains it, as well as her choice of spelling, in the appendix). She concludes that the work of constructive instead of regressive mourning has begun with those writers who reach well beyond their immediate circle, giving Marie Elbe and Camus’s posthumous texts pride of place. And taking a page from [End Page 213] Pierre Nora’s concept of lieux de mémoire, that a better knowledge of this written production (memory places of a shadow “French Algeria”) will eventually lead to our considering the Algerian conquest and unconquest as an important moment of French history, rather than a moment apart. Nostalgia buffs and other irredentists, please abstain.
Clarisse Zimra is associate professor of English and comparative literature at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.