Research in African Literatures 34.3 (2003) 100-114
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Kateb Yacine's Journey beyond Algeria and Back
Pamela A. Pears
Washington College, Chestertown, Maryland
Pour le peuple algérien, pour tous les peuples opprimés, Diên Biên Phu a éclaté comme un coup de foudre dans un ciel orageux. Un peuple colonisé venait de vaincre sur le champ de bataille la grande puissance coloniale réputée invincible. Pour tous les peuples qui subissaient encore l'esclavage et l'humiliation, Diên Biên Phu, c'était à la fois Octobre et Stalingrad: une révolution à l'échelle du monde et un appel irrésistible aux damnés de la Terre.
For the Algerian people, for all oppressed peoples, Dien Bien Phu exploded like a bolt of lightening in a stormy sky. A colonized people had just vanquished the great colonial power, reputed to be invincible, on the field of battle. For all peoples still suffering slavery and humiliation, Dien Bien Phu was both October and Stalingrad: a revolution of global proportion and an irresistible call to the wretched of the Earth.
—Kateb, Minuit 312 1
It is this revolutionary call that Kateb Yacine uses as the premise for his 1970 play, L'homme aux sandales de caoutchouc. 2 In it, he acknowledges the struggle of the Vietnamese people on both the particular level and the universal. He reminds the audience or reader of his play that the Vietnamese inflicted upon the French a defeat "without precedent in the history of the contemporary world" (Stora 23; emphasis added), a defeat that would not go unnoticed in Algeria. Even before the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Kateb began thinking about Vietnam as a setting for his play. In 1949, while a journalist in Algiers, he sketched out the first scenes, which he further developed in the 1960s during his visit and stay in Vietnam (Kateb, Éclats 64). The final version would not be published until just after Ho Chi Minh's death.
It is significant that one of the most influential and well-respected writers of the Algerian war generation selects Vietnam as the setting for a play. This choice allows Kateb to reach beyond Algeria. His work prior to L'homme questions and criticizes myriad issues: colonial institutions, social injustice, poverty, government corruption, and hypocrisy. Most of his literary endeavors are set in Algeria, and as Bernard Aresu indicates, Algeria represents a "microcosm of a broader world view" (7). With this play, however, he does not limit the setting to Algeria, his own nation; rather he adopts another country, Vietnam, as the microcosmic land. As an Algerian francophone writer, this alternative allows him to portray abuses of power in other nations beyond Algeria, while emphasizing the significance of Dien Bien Phu and the Vietnamese struggle to the world. This attempt to convey [End Page 100] an international critique of injustice is demonstrated in the following ways: First, Kateb states an international political message and chooses a setting outside of Algeria to convey this message. Secondly, to enforce his message he employs thematic and linguistic satire, especially in order to render characters from various nations. At the same time, he draws a clear distinction between those personalities he ridicules and those he respects. Finally, he derives formal inspiration from Vietnamese popular theater. This study will first show examples of these attempts to go beyond Algeria and will then point out how this internationalizing project paradoxically leads to the local theater that makes up the remainder of Kateb's literary career.
Kateb believed and participated in socialist politics; thus his choice of Vietnam as the subject of an epic play allows him to discuss the politics of communism in a forum outside of Algeria. 3 Although Kateb sympathized with the Vietnamese rebellion and admired Ho Chi Minh, he claimed that his play should not be reduced to mere propaganda. In an interview with Hichem Ben Yaïche in 1987, Kateb reproaches those who see his play only in these terms (Poète 173-74). He stresses his belief...