Interview with shortlisted author Abdelouahab Aissaoui
Where were you when the shortlist was announced and what was your reaction?
I was watching the livestreaming of the Prize and suddenly the internet was cut off. I found out that my name was on the shortlist from a friend on facebook. Of course, it was happy news.
Tell us about the research you did before writing The Spartan Court. Did you come across some surprising facts or characters?
Like other novels, the historical novel requires in-depth research and a lot of material drawn from reading. I referred to seventy books, historical and literary works, travel literature and military reports. All of them dealt with the period several years before and after the colonisation of Algeria. All this was to get a feeling of the general atmosphere around the events narrated in the novel. I certainly did come across many historical facts ignored by official histories and characters mostly unknown to intellectuals.
The French journalist Dupond says: “No two people who took part in it agreed on the meaning of the colonial campaign” (p. 256). Can you comment on this?
Anyone who researches our shared history realises that there were differences in vision characterising the campaign, and a division in French policy at that time, between supporters of the king and the liberals who were disgruntled with his absolute power and saw the campaign as merely a search for money with which the king could get rid of his opponents. Meanwhile, the religious establishment saw it as a chance to spread the Lord’s light in Africa, especially as they had the king’s favour. Each one, driven by his own motives, looked at the campaign from a different angle.
Often the same events are narrated several times, from the differing points of view of the five main characters, in the fifth section, for example. Why did you choose this form of narration?
Novels with a classical structure present the story from one perspective, maybe the omniscient narrator, or the narrator can be one of the characters, but a polyphonic structure depends on many perspectives. The story is told from different angles and there are various accounts of it. The novel escapes artistic totalitarianism, freeing the subject itself from a single vision. Perhaps the idea which beset me when writing The Spartan Court was: what is the form which suits a subject seen from different points of view?
The harsh, dictatorial Caviard still has a human side. He loves Dupond, who reminds him of his youth and dreams, before he turned into someone else after the experience of slavery. What does the novel say through him about the nature of human beings?
Both of them have deep theological knowledge, but Caviard’s outlook clashes with Dupond’s. His experience of prison and slavery has produced in him only hatred and enmity. One can consider him to be someone who participates in the campaign in order to purge himself, to free himself of the evils within him. It is possible that after everything is over, he may go back to being the person he once was, someone like Dupond.
To what extent is the female character of Douja symbolic of Al-Mahrousa (the city of Algiers)?
The image of the woman has been linked with the city in many classical novels, and each writer has his imaginative idea about this projection. The symbolism in The Spartan Court was not deliberate in that sense. Rather, it came as a response to an artistic vision of its subject which served the novel. The novel needs a voice which possesses the right to tell his/her version of events, challenging the colonial discourse which Al-Sallaoui and Ibn Mayyar also confront, each in their own way. Douja has her particular view, founded upon her life experience.
What is the symbolism of the character of Al-Mizwar (the colonial official responsible for organising prostitution in the city), and the brothel?
The link of prostitution with power opens the door to a number of questions. Is prostitution really a woman giving her body, or are there other meanings to the word? The novel suggests that dictatorial regimes are similar to the brothel and the tyrannical ruler is represented by Al-Mizwar. Using this lens, one can understand the rest of the symbolism of the events connected with these two terms in the novel, and even how they reflect on the present.
Dupond says, referring to Caviard’s words: “In Africa, you haven’t left anything for God, everything has become Caeser’s” (p.260). Is he right?
Of course he is right. Colonialism exploited the African continent and its countries are still suffering from the constraints of long-lasting contracts. It also ignited wars and sectarian strife in the continent, with governments’ complicity, in order to bleed their wealth. Colonial powers ignored the dictatorship practised by their governments. Although traditional colonialism has been curtailed, yet its influence and privileges are the same in former colonies.
Is Caviard victorious in the end and is Ibn Mayyar completely defeated?
Caviard and Ibn Mayyar must be read in their historical context. They express two ideas which were prevalent at that time. But the more pressing question is about the extent to which their ideology influences the present? And is it still accepted or adopted by certain parties? Despite the fact that the world has witnessed a cultural revolution, this has not gone further and achieved peace. In the same way, there were always people who came as mediators bringing democracy, but we see only more destruction. We cannot make a judgement about the defeat or victory of any of the characters, since the matter is relative. Victory could require thousands of deaths and then we would need to look again at our motives.
Ibn Mayyar says about the buildings of Al-Mahrusa (Algiers) destroyed by the French: “We tend to prefer curving shapes, like arches and circles, whilst their buildings rise up like squares and triangles. The crescent cannot become a cross. Centuries of wars and death, and no crescent has ever become a cross, just as no cross has become a crescent” (p.346). What does the novel say about identity and the relationship between East and West?
The relationship between East and West is still contentious and it’s not easy to unpick it. Cultural criticism has focused on the foundations of both civilisations. The Arabic novel has also given its reading of this ambiguous relationship. In The Spartan Court, Ibn Mayyar’s character represents the East in all its social, psychological and even architectural dimensions, since Algeria belongs to this space, not geographically but in terms of its civilisation. There has been a struggle of civilisations in history, and it is natural that this should affect the novel, and this discourse is ongoing…
What is behind your passion for history? Your previous novel, Mountains of Death, focused on the sufferings of Spanish men imprisoned in camps in Algeria, after their defeat in the 1930s civil war. Are you interested in telling the stories of the forgotten of history, including defeated Westerners?
History offers a sensitive reading of the present. One can read about the first causes of events, and from these you can understand social foundations and how they fit and work together. History also determines many of the relationships upon which the present is based.
Arabic historical novels have often been about the victorious ‘other’, based on their superior point of view, but Mountains of Death gave a different perspective, that of the defeated ‘other’. Normally it is the history of victors which is written, but can’t this be turned upside down and can’t the defeated have an audible voice? That is the future challenge of the contemporary novel, at least in my opinion.
Will your next novel be a historical one?
It won’t be historical in a literal sense, but it will rely on history.