This coming-of-age memoir describes an intellectually gifted girl, of Muslim origin, who seeks to liberate herself from the narrow-mindedness of the village and from the traditionalist and religious strictures applied to her by her father.
France: Story of a Childhood, by Zahia Rahmani. Translated by Lara Vergnaud. Yale University Press, 216 pp., $16.
By John Taylor
Zahia Rahmani’s memoir, France: Story of a Childhood, is timely in several ways. The daughter of a Harki—an Algerian who chose to be on the French side during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962) — she and her family were forced to flee to France in 1967, when she was five years old. Her father, who had been imprisoned in the aftermath of the war, also later escaped, but then committed suicide in 1991. Rahmani eventually discovered that her father had been jailed for political reasons, not because he had borne arms against the Algerian revolutionaries. His life provides the subject matter for her first novel, Moze (2003), and, although his death is only briefly evoked in France, his despair is implicit in every paragraph where he appears.
Rahmani casts light on how she and other Harkis grew up away from a homeland that rejected them as traitors and in a France that did not welcome them because they were North African Muslims. Her testimony is important because this story remains insufficiently told in France, let alone understood. It is only in the past decade that Harki demands for justice and recognition have at least been heard by the two most recent French presidents. And although concrete measures remain to be taken, it was only just a few days ago — on September 25th — that President François Hollande officially recognized “the responsibilities of French governments in abandoning the Harkis, in the massacres of those who remained in Algeria, and in the inhumane conditions encountered by Harki families transferred to France.”
After her childhood exile to France, Rahmani grew up in a village in rural Oise, which is located north of Paris. In such a place, she was necessarily viewed as different and sometimes ostracized by her fellow French citizens, but she resolutely struggled to “become,” as one could say, “what she was” — to paraphrase Nietzsche: that is, a young student, then a woman, an intellectual, and a writer. She offers a balanced appraisal of the villagers, noting the racists but also affectionately pointing to the decent neighbors in her midst.
Yet although this Harki backdrop and Rahmani’s specific Kabyle origins must be kept in mind, they by no means provide the most important theme in this book. France is even timelier for us today because, in contrast to Moze, which focuses on the father’s plight, this coming-of-age memoir describes an intellectually gifted girl, of Muslim origin, who seeks to liberate herself from the narrow-mindedness of the village and from the traditionalist and religious strictures applied to her by her father.
In a provincial setting that is only about a 45-minute train ride from Paris, the greatest obstacle to her development is indeed her depressed, taciturn, authoritarian father. She schemes to watch television programs and to hide out in an attic room, a sort of sanctuary for her; and then, when she becomes a teenager, to go out with her school friends, attend village festivities at night, and eventually have a boyfriend. Significantly, her mother, Ourida, who remains traditionally subservient to her husband and can’t speak French well, does what she can to help her daughter carry out her plans. She is movingly portrayed here in her motherly love as well as in her battle with heart disease. Other characters play roles in the narrator’s life: her more timorous older sister, her enterprising older brother, and a schoolteacher who also helps her succeed in her aspiration to become a liberated woman.
In the sense that some French political concepts, notably “laïcité,” are often difficult for Americans to understand, France offers an arresting description of how an individual such as Rahmani can endeavor to comprehend her origins — her identity — but especially to transcend them.
In her elucidative translator’s introduction, Lara Vergnaud recalls her first meeting with the author, who, “reluctant to be pigeonholed, stated that she prefer[ed] to be regarded as a French rather than a Harki or Franco-Algerian wrier.” Similarly, the teenager in the story insists on being viewed as an individual, and not as an individual who should first be qualified by adjectives such as Harki, Algerian, or Muslim. She demands this of her family and, in particular, of her father. And she demands this of the France in which she grows up and continues to live. Needless to say, the question of “identity” has become a hotly debated topic in a France that is not officially, constitutionally, a multicultural society, but rather one legally, theoretically, based on equality and neutrality in the public sphere (whereas it is in the private sphere that an individual possesses and practices his cultural, religious, ethnic, and other personal particularities). These political and philosophical issues are not explicitly raised in this book, but one cannot help but ponder them while reading it.
Likewise, Rahmani’s brilliant grades at school enable her to move up socially and culturally away from the inhabitants of the backward Oise village, not to mention from the destiny of many second-generation Harkis elsewhere in France. This is the essentially free French public school system — the “école républicaine” — at its ideal best, for it enables talented young people such as the narrator to attain, and earn degrees at, the university level without being crushed, or even brutally excluded from schooling, by financial concerns. Rahmani consequently meditates on the increasing gap, between her and the villagers, in this book that moves between narrating through lively scenes — without commentary — and explicating a childhood.
Accordingly, France is half personal essay, half autobiographical novel. Time shifts are frequent (and at times rather disorienting), as Rahmani sometimes situates herself in the historical present (which varies), and sometimes looks back on telltale past events from the vantage point of our present. And she employs various writing styles. The book opens, for example, with a vivid series of succinct vignettes, but in other passages her prose is more discursive, sometimes almost journalistic; she even reproduces in extenso her article that was commissioned, because of the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the Algerian War, and then rejected, by the Algerian newspaper El Watan (and eventually published in the French journal Drôle d’Époque).
On some pages of this finely translated book, the author thus stands back a little too far. A more explanatory style distracts from the intensity that she has built up so well elsewhere. Amid the juxtaposition of genres, or approaches, the strictly literary passages are the most memorable ones here. Rahmani knows how to zoom in on the key details that represent, but not necessarily name, the deep emotions that we all can experience or at least empathize with, be we Harki or not, French or not, Muslim or not (and so on).
John Taylor has recently translated Pierre Chappuis’s poetry (Like Bits of Wind) and Catherine Colomb’s novel The Spirits of the Earth—both books available from Seagull. He is the author of the three-volume Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction). His most recent collections of poetry and short prose are The Apocalype Tapestries (Xenos Books) and If Night is Falling (Bitter Oleander Press). John Taylor’s website.