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Fictional Testimonies or Testimonial Fictions: Moussa Ould Ebnou's Barzakh

From: Research in African Literatures
Volume 33, Number 3, Fall 2002
pp. 14-31 | 10.1353/ral.2002.0088

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Research in African Literatures 33.3 (2002) 14-31

The Mauritanian novelist Moussa Ould Ebnou is among the most innovative writers in African literature today, as well as among the most neglected by critics. He is the author of two novels in double version, French and Arabic. The first is L'amour impossible (1990)/Al Hub al Mustahil (1999) and the second Barzakh (1993)/Madinat al Riyah (1996), in which he weaves masterfully together science fiction and mysticism, history and myth, truth and fiction, philosophy and literature. The concern of this paper is to examine the complexities and implications of the interweaving of these discourses in the novel Barzakh.

Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge defines "modern" as a term "to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse [. . .] making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creating of wealth" (xxiii). In these terms, the authorizing principle for the legitimacy of knowledge finds its foundation in the metaphysical tradition and its notion of truth as it relates to concepts of totality and the certitude of an absolute Subject. In Barzakh the relationship between these "grand narratives" and the discourses that they authorize come under scrutiny within the literary space. In other words, the text forces us to confront the question of what happens to the narratives of knowledge and truth once they are cast in a literary mold; whether knowledge brought forth by literature can in fact lay claims to the kind of notions of truth that motivate the grand narratives.

In approaching the novel, we must first begin with considerations of form even though we shall soon discover that the text will not allow such simple dualities as "form" and "content" to withstand its challenges. In an article entitled "The Mauritanian Novel and Duality of Origin," Mohamed Lamine Ould Moulay Brahim points to a tradition of double writing of texts, first in French and then in Arabic, in contemporary Mauritanian fiction, and specifically Moussa Ould Ebnou's first novel L'amour impossible (Impossible Love) and its corresponding Arabic version, Al Hub al Mustahil. Upon encountering Ould Ebnou's second novel, Barzakh, we come face to face again with this problem of duality of origin, for the French text Barzakh also exists in an Arabic version entitled Madinat al-Riyah. The difficulty, or rather the mystery, lies in the fact that nowhere in either of these two texts is it indicated which is the original. According to the dates of publication, Barzakh precedes Madinat al-Riyah, but this does not imply that the two texts were also written in that order. Neither text defines itself as the translation of the other, for they both bear only the name of the author and no translator, leading to the conclusion that the author wrote both texts. Though the stories remain fundamentally the same, the two texts are marked by differences in organization and language. Both titles are Arabic and are found within the texts as geographical names and therefore do not translate one another. The Arabic title "Madinat al-Riyah" (the City of Winds) names, in the Arabic version, the capital city of the Republic whose name becomes the French title, "Barzakh." To complicate the scene even further, the French text gives to the capital not the Arabic name, "Madinat al-Riyah," but rather the English "Windcity," thus opening up the text towards yet another language. Furthermore, while both texts are divided into three parts of five chapters each, the French text only titles the beginning of the sections, and the chapters are simply numbered, whereas the Arabic version also gives titles to each chapter, titles that remain untranslated.

From the onset, then, the texts of Barzakh/Madinat al-Riyah inscribe a rupture in the logic of truth as a totality and a place of uncompromising sameness, for they cannot testify to their origin. This inability is marked by a double process of doubling and excess: first, the two texts turn towards each other, doubling and reflecting each other without either claiming itself...