Djaout, Tahar 1954-1993

views updated

DJAOUT, Tahar 1954-1993

(Tayeb S., Temim Dhofari)

PERSONAL: Born January 11, 1954, in Azeffoun (Greater Kabylia), Algeria; died June 2, 1993, in Algiers, Algeria.Education: Attended University of Algiers; University of Paris II, graduate degree (journalism and communications).

CAREER: Worked as a journalist for various French-language publications in Algeria and the United States, sometimes under the pseudonyms Tayeb S. and Temim Dhofari; founded independent newspaper Ruptures, January, 1993.

AWARDS, HONORS: Duca Foundation Prize, 1984, for Les Chercheurs d'Os; Kateb Yacine Prize, Noureddine-Aba Foundation, 1991, for Les Vigiles; Prix Meditérranée, 1991, for Les Vigiles.



Solstice barbelé (title means "Barbed Wire Solstice"), Naaman (Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada), 1975.

L'arche à vau-l'eau (title means "The Ark Downstream"), Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Paris, France), 1978.

Insulaire et cie, 1980.

L'Oiseau minéral, 1982.

Les rets de l'oiseleur, Enterprise Nationale du Livre (Algiers, Algeria), 1984.

(Editor) Les mots migrateurs (title means "Migrating Words"), Office des Publications Universitaires (Algiers, Algeria), 1984.

Perennes (title means "Perennials"), 1993.


L'Exproprié (title means "The Expropriated"), Majault (Paris, France), 1981.

Les chercheurs d'os (title means "The Bone-Seekers"), Seuil (Paris, France), 1984.

L'Invention du désert (title means "The Invention of the Desert"), Seuil (Paris, France), 1987.

Les vigiles (title means "The Watchmen"), Seuil (Paris, France), 1991.

Le dernier été de la raison (title means "The Last Summer of Reason"), Seuil (Paris, France), 1999.

SIDELIGHTS: Poet, novelist, and journalist Tahar Djaout, an outspoken critic of repression and religious fanaticism, once wrote in a poem, "If you speak, you die. If you are silent, you die. So, speak and die!" The words were prophetic; Djaout was gunned down in May, 1993 in front of his apartment in Bainem, Alegria and died days later. The author, whose first name means "pure one," dedicated his writing and life to human rights.

Djaout was born into a poor Berber family in the seaside town of Azeffoun in 1954, early in the Algerian nationalist movement. He entered the University of Algiers as a mathematics student, and continued his interests in poetry, which he had begun writing as a teenager. He earned a graduate degree in journalism and communications from the University of Paris II.

At age twenty-one Djaout published his first poetry collection, Solstice barbelé. He wrote several collections and edited an anthology of young Algerian poets, Les Mots migrateurs. The title represents the freedom and creativity of childhood and independence. Djaout and his generation of writers represented hope and revolution for Algeria, and its quest for independence from French colonizers. "If history, for [Djaout], is a discourse of usurpation, a site of dispossession, poetry is the means by which the habitual order of words and things is subverted, the place where freedom is learned," Danielle Marx-Scouras wrote in the Encyclopedia of World Literature.

Despite his burgeoning career as a journalist and his international reputation as a novelist, his real love was poetry. There, Djaout could succinctly express such stunning realities as, "There are cities where it is horrible to be twenty," from his early poem "Birthday." Beginning in the late 1970s, Djaout started writing essays on culture for the weekly Algerian publications El Moudjahid and Algérie-Actualité. At the same time he was also writing for French and U.S. publications, using the pen names Tayeb S. and Temim Dhofari. Eight years of war, after which the French departed, had left his country in disarray: more than two million Algerians had been left homeless, and the French regime left the Algerians with few professionals or skilled laborers. There was also infighting among the revolutionary leaders, a coup, and fundamentalist rioting against the one-party government.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), whose aim was to change Algeria into an Islamic state, gained significantly in municipal and general elections in the early 1990s. After violent demonstrations, the government outlawed the FIS, further arousing its more militant supporters. They began a campaign of terror which included assassinations of intellectuals, politicians, artists, military officials, and journalists—including Djaout. On May 26, 1993, Djaout was shot in the head three times en route to work at the newspaper Ruptures, which he had founded that January. He died without regaining consciousness on June 2.

Djaout's five novels, including the posthumously published Le dernier été de la raison, earned him worldwide literary status. His first novel, L'Exproprié, is situated in a post-independent Algeria and involves a nomadic Berber trapped between two cultures while seeking his place in his country. David K. Bruner wrote in World Literature Today, "L'Exproprié mixes poetry and prose to make a bitter statement about an Algerian's search for identity and some semblance of justice and reason in a world which is chaotic, surrealistic, and horrifying. Although Algerian-based, this statement may just as well be made for most places on earth."

Les chercheurs d'os illustrates how war disrupts a small village community. Narrated by a fourteen-yearold boy, Les chercheurs d'os reports the "sacred journey" to locate the remains of relatives for customary burial. Djaout contrasts the younger generation, which must fight over its remains (i.e., its history), with the village elders, who stuff themselves with the sacrifices of others. J. D. Gauthier wrote in World Literature Today, "The dialectic of continuity in the sun's daily work and the temporary span of life of a man enters the boy's consciousness, and he begins to ponder the great truths: death, life, tradition."

L'Invention du désert investigates the history of the Arab conquest of the Maghreb, a segment of northwest Africa. Djaout, through his characters, reveals his sentiments about religion and its place in society. L'Invention du désert "questions the notion of purity at the heart of religious fanaticism in Algeria today," Marx-Scouras wrote. Les vigiles, the last novel published in Djaout's lifetime, features a young physics teacher who modernizes his grandmother's weaving loom. But the bureaucracy bogs him down with suspicion and petty concerns. In the face of international acclaim, the government decides it needs a scapegoat for its inaction. It tells a nondescript citizen he must "disappear." Told he is useless ("peu utile") to society, he hangs himself. This tale exemplifies Djaout's contempt toward the government's disregard for the individual.

In Le dernier été de la raison, a bookseller struggles against rulers who believe the worship of God should be the only artistic expression. He loses his friends, family, and his beloved bookshop, which the state takes over. Often prophetic in his fiction, Djaout, in his final novel, "sounds a warning," wrote James Schiff in Book, "about what can happen when religious fundamentalism proliferates." A Publishers Weekly reviewer, who read the English version, cited the author's "excellent flair for poetic description."

Though born in a Berber-speaking province, Djaout, as did most Algerian intellectuals, wrote in French. While the government labeled his work foreign literature, in reality, Djaout represented his country's striving for self-definition. "Djaout's great subject," Adam Shatz wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "was his country's slow, painful effort to enter modernity, and he examined it with the troubled love of a native son."



Encyclopedia of World Literature in the TwentiethCentury, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.


Book, January-February, 2002, James Schiff, review of The Last Summer of Reason, p. 70.

Booklist, October 15, 2001, John Green, review of TheLast Summer of Reason, p. 381.

French Review, October, 1978, Josette Bryson, review of Solstice barbelé, p. 177; October, 1996, Marie Naudin, "Tahar Djaout: Paysage metaphorique de l'Algérie," p. 81; December, 1996, Patricia Geesey, "Exhumation and History: Tahar Djaout's Les chercheurs d'os," p. 271.

Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2001, review of TheLast Summer of Reason, p. 1233.

New York Times Book Review, December 23, 2001, Adam Shatz, review of The Last Summer of Reason, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly, October 1, 2001, review of TheLast Summer of Reason, p. 38.

Research in African Literatures, fall, 1999, Reda Bensmaia, review of L'Invention du désert, p. 151.

World Literature Today, winter, 1985, J. D. Gauthier, review of Les chercheurs d'os, p. 143; spring, 1992, Evelyn Uhrhan Irving, review of Les vigiles, p. 388, David K. Bruner, review of L'Exproprié, p. 563; spring, 2000, Jean-Marie Volet, review of The Last Summer of Reason, p. 339.


Arab.Net, (May 16, 2002). Ruminator Books Web site, (May 15, 2002).



New York Times, June 14, 1993.*