As promised, War, What is it Good For?

Algerians know from war.  It’s an undeniable fact that Algeria has experienced its share of civil war and unrest, which perhaps reached a zenith at the tail end of French colonization.  The film The Battle of Algiers is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever watched…made by Algerian filmmakers within months of the end of the war with the French, it highlights the street tactics and ingenious guerilla warfare that locals engaged in to triumph over their colonizers.  It is black and white and shot in a city still torn up from homemade bombs, buildings riddled with bullets.  So powerful and immediate, it almost hurts to watch it.  A few years ago, at the beginning of the Iraq war, generals showed the film to their troops, to prepare them to combat insurgents in the streets of Baghdad.  I can’t help but wonder if, instead, these young soldiers came away from the screenings musing on the futility of war, and with a newfound sense of empathy for their "enemies."Savage_night

Into this cratered landscape came Mohammed Dib, born in Algeria in 1920 and exiled to France in 1956.  One of the "founding fathers" of North African literature, in his book The Savage Night (translated by C. Dickinson,) Dib writes of war with an insider’s insight and poet’s language.  This is the first book-length translation of Dib’s writing, and was released by NU Press in 2001.  2001.  I must say, the timing could not have been more inspired.

Algeria is Dib’s most fertile storytelling ground, but this collection includes tales set all over the world.  It doesn’t matter, really, where he sets his stories.  They all share a universal through-line, a burning reminder that people worldwide are living lives touched by–mauled by–war.  Their experiences are universal and, in a sense, unexceptional.  And, like the finest war writers, Dib also understands that from horrific circumstances can emerge haunting moments of grace.  In "Paquita, or The Ravished Gaze," a young girl’s parents sell her eyes to the daughter of a wealthy gringo family in the northern part of their country.  Their guilt over this act torments them so much that it causes them physical pain.  Unexpected, then, is young Paquita’s final assessment: "Brightly, she cries, ‘Ever since my eyes were taken away, the world has become so much vaster.’"

Rape, torture, loss and trauma.  It’s all here, and if you’re looking for something light, do what I do and pick up US Weekly.  (I wasted a good four hours last week contemplating the future of Tom Cruise’s new baby.)  But for rainy evenings, when you have tossed aside the daily newspaper with a frustrated groan, eyes bleary from headlines that seem unchanged for months or years, find solace in this mighty little book.