An Algerian Childhood: A Collection of Autobiographical Narratives

edited by Leïla Sebbar
An Algerian Childhood: A Collection of Autobiographical Narratives
Ruminator Books

PERHAPS IT'S TIME to consider the possibility of scratch-and-sniff literature. Of all the stimuli, it is said that aroma holds the greatest power to evoke memory, and it is this thread that ties together much of An Algerian Childhood. Time and again, this collection of memoirs spills forth onto the page as if cued by some collective unconscious, attuned to the realm of the olfactory. A mother's Arabic cuisine, a French teacher's cologne, spices in the market in Oran--the sense of smell becomes a language through which 16 exiled writers recall the Algeria of their childhood.

Consider this passage by Hélène Cixous, whose "Bare Feet" is a bitter yet nostalgic story of a young girl's understanding of destiny: "Powerful feelings can be smelled: love, hate, the urgency to murder; first you receive them in the face, they strike, you open a door, you go in, and the bodies in the room emit their olfactory messages."

Alain Vircondelet's "The Sources Return" is another example. The third-person-plural voice, unusual in a memoir, lends it a haunting air of detachment:


They lived their days and nights together for the duration of the war. Eight years of captive life in the tranquil sweetness of the kitchen, in the crystallized smells of fruits and meats. During the hottest hours of the day, the jasmine climbing onto the wrought iron balcony would invade the rooms.

Leïla Sebbar, who collected and edited these stories, is a teacher of Algerian descent who has written widely on themes of war and exile. An Algerian Childhood marks her latest effort to recapture the mystique of her troubled homeland. Explaining this context is the foreword by Anne Donadey, which includes a helpful sketch of Algerian history dating back to the second century B.C. After centuries of domination by the Turks and then the French, Algeria finally gained independence in 1962. Yet, under Islamic rule, brutality and repression--especially for women--have largely continued, along with a painful dirty war that followed a canceled election in the early Nineties. As a result of Algeria's political tumult, virtually all of the writers featured here now live in France.

But this volume is less a historical account of war than a treatise on the fragile and dynamic qualities of memory. In "The Memory of Others," Nabile Farès, who is a poet and a psychoanalyst, writes of the fluid and malleable properties of recall. The title implies that he inherited much of what he remembers. "Strange thing!" he writes, "Discovering how a memory is constructed for you."

Though these stories revolve around a war, one that the authors as children only dimly understood, the pages contain a palpable sense of longing for the Algeria of old. Wistful and absorbing, An Algerian Childhood illustrates the ways in which memory can evolve with the passage of time or be summoned intact by a scent in the air.

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