Interview with shortlisted author Abdulatif Ould Abdullah
Where were you when the shortlist was announced? What was your reaction?
As usual, I was overseeing an architectural project surrounded by flying dust as a result of moving the machinery and sounds emanating from every inch in the workshop. I didn’t have internet in that remote place, so I found out later when my sister called – she was the first to tell me I was shortlisted – during my meeting with the bosses discussing the details of the building process. Before the call was over, I was completely changed, and everyone could see it since I could not stop smiling, so they kept asking what was going on with me. Then I told them about the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Afterwards, the conversation did not return to its earlier topic, but rather the businessmen turned into curious children genuinely interested to know more. Those were unforgettable moments, especially since people who have nothing to do with literature were moved by my happiness and shared that sentiment with me so genuinely.
Wahid Hamras compares himself to Scheherazade as he recounts stories to his jailers. His stories must last as long as he’d like to live. Why did you resort to this story within a story technique? How did this help you build the novel?
In life, things are related to and influence one another. This might not seem obvious at first, but we live a series of human experiences. The technique of a story within a story makes it possible to enter other worlds that might be marginal or forgotten and it gives the reader a deeper understanding of life. It also gives readers the freedom to wander in an unstable world, moving from major to side events, where the link between them might appear to be thin, but it is there. The margins are important and we must learn how to pay attention to them to better understand our reality. Real history is not what is written by traditional historians. Ultimately, history is not made by the élite but rather, it is a mix of everything. There is the story of an entire people, past and present, and the story of the hero, Wahid Hamras, also with his past and present. But there is an oppressive political power that is trying to distort and obliterate this history, to dominate or erase its memory, so that their authority will remain unquestionable. These three points have been drawn together through the technique of a story within a story. In order to understand authority, we have to understand the people; and in order to understand the people, we have to understand the individual. All this branches out to several stories that will ultimately lead us to a single story, which is that of man since the dawn of civilization.
Algerian archeology takes up a significant place in the narrative, and at its heart is the relationship of foreigners to the landowners, the Algerians. Is this your way of tackling the issue of identity? How did you avoid falling into clichés related to identity?
To be clear, when writing this novel, I didn’t have a particular place in mind. The main idea was the borders and landmines that separate people and divide states. These borders have existed for a long time, with the emergence of individual property and have further developed with the succession of civilizations. The līmes represent Roman violence and the Morice and Challe lines represent European seizure of weakened countries in Africa and other states. Borders will not disappear by physically removing them because they exist in our minds. Technological advancement has increased man’s loneliness and isolation, turning him into a digit in a universal equation. This kind of estrangement and division among people is more dangerous than the landmines and barbwires that divided Algeria and Morocco decades ago and which still stand in many areas of the world. I created a fictional place for the novel: Douar Sidi Majdoub and Douar Sidi Hirak are neighbouring villages with a shared history and fate which are divided by landmines. I demonstrated all this in a detailed map, showing the fictional place with all its complications to leave room for the reader’s imagination, and this place can be projected on many levels. As for human history, it is shared among peoples, and every discovery brings us closer to understanding our reality as a species that escaped extinction, as humans. There is no pure ethnicity; ancient man traveled everywhere in the world and mixed with all human strains. The differences are cultural not ethnic, and here we need to reread history to determine the notions upon which the culture of these peoples is formed, then to try to understand it more deeply.
Some critics have described the novel as a mix of thriller and historical genres – how would you categorize it? How do you want your novel to be read?
The thriller genre is just the general frame of the story. I did not focus on the element of suspense very much because what I wanted to say required a slow, sober reading. I was more concerned with the semiotic side of the work. Those familiar with the area and what the names referenced in the map alluded to and the way the places were drawn will understand some of the things I meant to refer to. I didn’t allow suspense to control the narration because a novel that depends on the element of mystery, then reveals everything at the end, would ruin the work. The reader would be done with it entirely because all the events depend on that particular mystery which is no longer a mystery at the end of the novel. That is why I hinted at the real killer every time, who is the main character (Wahid Hamras) in order to draw the reader’s attention to other ideas. The slowness in some instances was necessary to break this quickening and force the reader to search and wonder, why all this slowness and particularly in the first half of the novel? I had to build the story room by room. The archeological excavations required description and slowness but underneath there were deep changes and transformations that would explode in the second half of the novel. The hero returned to his homeland and examined his personal history at the same time that the expedition examined the history of his people and country. The first part of the novel was filled with ideas, and that required the room to present them.
Tell us about the relationship between reality and imagination. In the novel it is difficult for Wahid Hamras – and the reader as well – to differentiate between what really happens and what the characters imagine. Is this a coping mechanism for painful memories?
The conscious and subconscious make up man’s thought and essence. The importance of the subconscious lies in our actions, dreams and behaviour. The world as we know it today is not merely the outcome of the conscious, but our dreams and myths equally contribute to it. The cultural distortion that most weakened peoples suffer from causes psychological illnesses that have tainted daily life and poisoned thoughts; and the subconscious has come to pose a threat, with all the pressures and endless silences it entails. Dealing with the truth in an environment like this imposes other laws and sinuous paths that make it difficult for individuals to keep their psychological balance. The hero here is unhinged because he suffers from unspeakable pains, and at the same time, he cannot keep silent about them, so they float to the surface through violence – be it physical or psychological. Prevailing custom is the law governing societies that do not acknowledge human rights. Wahid Hamras could not tell the difference between reality and fiction because reality was more shocking and amazing than fiction. Also, he resorted to fiction as an escape from reality. But ultimately, aren’t both reality and fiction illogical and strange? They are two sides to the same coin.
Which authors influenced you as a novelist?
In my early days of reading, I was influenced by many writers, but I began to discover a huge world of great writers such as Umberto Eco, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Rachid Boudjedra, Amin Zaoui, Waciny Laredj, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American authors. There is also African literature in particular, with its rising stars such as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie among others. I’ve also enjoyed experimental writers such as David Foster Wallace, Rachel Cusk and Zadie Smith. I have a special relationship with some books that I cannot explain simply, such as The Obstinate Snail by Rachid Boudjedra and The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. As for the books that shaped my consciousness, they range from philosophy and ideology to literature.
What are you reading now? Has your reading list been influenced by the Coronavirus stay at home recommendations?
I am currently reading Al-Jahiz’s Book of Animals and a memoir by an American writer. There are other readings pending or that I have stopped because of my mood or because I need different book. Some books are read slowly and others are devoured in a few sittings. But I prefer those that require effort and patience because they will ultimately reward us in their own ways. Every book has its way of interacting with the reader because the book is a living being and it is tactful to treat books well.