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  • Translating the Untranslated: Djebar’s Le blanc de l’Algérie
  • John Erickson (bio)

Je ne peux pour ma part exprimer mon malaise d’écrivain et d’Algérienne que par référence à cette couleur [blanc], ou plutôt à cette non-couleur. “Le blanc, sur notre âme, agit comme le silence absolu”, disait Kandinsky. Me voici, par ce rappel de la peinture abstraite, en train d’amorcer un discours en quelque sorte déporté.

For my part I am able to express my malaise as a writer and an Algerian woman only with reference to that color (white), or rather to that noncolor. Kandinsky said, “White, on our soul, acts as absolute silence.” Here I am, opening a discours in some way deviant and exilic.

—Djebar, Le blanc de l’Algérie (271)

Two nouns often meet in tandem in Assia Djebar’s recent writings, particularly those writings profoundly concerned with the bloodletting that has plagued recent-day Algeria and that finds it roots in the Algerian War of Liberation. Those nouns are le blanc (“the white,” “the blank,” etc.) and la voix (“voice”)—the former signifying among other things death, unfulfillment, absence, and unwrittenness, the latter the often silenced voice of the innumerable victims of the repression and recrimination occurring in the years since the revolution.

The work central to this essay is Djebar’s Le blanc de l’Algérie, a perplexing memoir published in 1995. The problematic I address is that of Djebar’s impelling motive to lend voice to the sufferings of her fellow Algerians and to those who have struggled to bring about a just and integrated society. Her deep solicitude in regard to the individual tragedies of those of whom she writes projects ultimately onto the question of nationhood.

Djebar seeks to bring forth the power of the voice incarned in the words of Albert Camus that serve as one of the two epigraphs to Le blanc de l’Algérie: “Si j’avais le pouvoir de donner une voix à la solitude et à l’angoisse de chacun d’entre nous, c’est avec cette voix que je m’adresserais à vous” ‘If I had the power to give voice to the solitude and the anguish of each of us, it is with that voice that I would speak to you.’

The noun blanc carries multiple connotations in Djebar’s memoir. The Grand Robert dictionary offers a profusion of meanings: that which reflects light, symbolizes purity and innocence, is exsangue (emptied of blood), an interval, an empty space as on a written page, the center of a target (a bull’s-eye) or the target itself, to name but a few. Djebar rings a refrain on these multiple meanings: le blanc for her suggests the paleness of a nation that has seen the blood of so many of its people shed, but above all perhaps it suggests the unwrittenness of the blank page yet to be marked, the story of [End Page 95] the absent dead to be told, the silence to be broken—in short, the interval between past and present to be filled.

That Djebar links the noun le blanc in her title to the name of Algeria suggests to us the stillborn, unrealized state of Algerian nationhood promised by the War of Liberation that claimed more than a million lives during eight years of bloody conflict against the French (1954–62). In the time following, the Algerian nation, as we know, has undergone dictatorial rule and internecine conflict, culminating in the annulment by the military government of the elections of 1991 that would have put power into the hands of the Islamists. From that event has ensued civil war and mass murder. 1

The noun blanc, among other things, then, signifies the blank page of a failed revolution, yet to be written upon, as well as, on a personal level, the stories of Djebar’s friends, acquaintances, and fellow Algerians who have died, stories that remain to be voiced. At the close of Le blanc de l’Algérie, Djebar says:

Le blanc de l’écriture, dans une Algérie non traduite? Pour l’instant, l’Algérie de la douleur, sans...