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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 192-193

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Book Review

La langue de l'autre

La langue de l'autre, by Abdelkébir Khatibi. Saratoga Springs, NY: Les Mains Secrètes, Centre d'Etudes sur les Littératures d'Afrique du Nord, 1999. 95 pp. ISBN 0-9665360-1-0.

This slim volume of some of Khatibi's recent occasion pieces, conference talks, meditations on literature, interviews with Pascal Amel on his earlier works of fiction, autobiography, and literary essays should interest both veteran readers of this Moroccan writer and those as yet unfamiliar with his diverse oeuvre. We recognize some of the key concepts that Khatibi has developed in his writing over years of thinking about the language of the Other. These include the privileged difference of being an "étranger professionnel," an intellectual simultaneously colonized-decolonized, as well as the notion of hospitality in language, the role of syntax in providing rhythms where the m(o)ther tongue can be detected and explored by translating French into French, and the inevitable "lien indestructible de la séparation" for all writers who are bilingual.

The book is divided into three sections: "Interface," "Exercices de témoignage,"and "Séance tenante (Entretiens avec Pascal Amel)." The most recent and therefore less known pieces are the two that comprise "Interface," consisting of "Le point de non-retour" and "Lettre ouverte (à Jacques Derrida)." Both of these essays dialogue with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, particularly his Le monolinguisme de l'autre (Paris: Galilée, 1996) in which Derrida analyzes the linguistic situation of Algeria's Jewish community under the Vichy regime when they were stripped of their French citizenship from 1940 to 1943. Derrida traces the devastating effects of French colonial practices of assimilation in Algeria since the 1870 Crémieux laws granting Jews citizenship, and the ensuing cultural, religious, linguistic, and political alienation of this population.

Khatibi responds by doing research into the history of the French language in North Africa and the history of the languages spoken (or not) by the Judeo-Maghrebians in Algeria as well as in his native Morocco. He sketches out the differences, both in the legal status of Jewish subjects under French colonial rule, and in the nature of the languages used by this community in the two countries (Judeo-Arabic, the specific Arabic spoken by the Jews of Algeria, the Hakitiya spoken by Moroccan Jews of Medieval Spanish descent, and Berber), particularly in terms of what was at stake in the various schools.

But his main interest here is in the writer's use of language insofar as these linguistic conflicts obtain, and he is explicit about placing his interrogation under the sign of friendship, of reading and writing, addressing Derrida as an alter ego: "J'ai toujours pensé que ce qui porte le nom de 'déconstruction' est une forme radicale de 'décolonisation' de la pensée dite occidentale" (24). Between these two poles Khatibi elaborates on examples of other "dissident" writers who demonstrate the need to invent languages of their own within French, such as Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Proust, and then expands his analysis to bilingual situations such as Kafka's to conclude, on the one hand, that the exigency of such invention is not merely the purview of the colonized writer and, on the other hand, that [End Page 192] "c'en est fini de la croyance à la langue maternelle et peut-être de toute croyance. Se fier à la langue de l'autre est bien à la fois un point de suture et de rupture, sinon de dissidence" (29). Here Khatibi's thought seems even more radical than Derrida's. This answers to, illuminates, but also complicates Derrida's paradoxical opening cry in Le monologuisme: "Je n'ai qu'une langue, ce n'est pas la mienne." Khatibi differs from Derrida's argument by insisting that language has no home and that his relationship to it lies beyond the issue of belonging or colonial expropriation. He is closest to Derrida in his discussions of "l'illisible," that language effect created by the...


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