Tahar Djaout
The Last Summer of Reason
Trans. by Marjolijn de Jager
Foreword by Wole Soyinka
St. Paul, MN: Ruminator Books, 2001. Pp. 145. $19.00

Reviewed by Sabah A. Salih

On 9 June 1992 Egypt lost its most courageous secularist, the writer Farag Fouda, to Islamic fundamentalists. The following year it was Algeria's turn. Like Fouda, Tahar Djaout was not afraid to die in defense of secularism, and on 26 May 1993 he joined the growing number of fellow Algerians killed by Islamic militants for their beliefs. Both Fouda and Djaout reversed John Ashbery's postmodernist definition of life as "a Book that has been put down," and insisted that life is the opposite: a perpetual struggle always in need of human attention and sacrifice, especially, to adopt a phrase of W. H. Auden's, during a time of "expanding fear."

Djaout wrote some eleven books of fiction and poetry, including this unfinished novel, beautifully translated from the French by Marjolijn de Jager. The Last Summer of Reason, however, does not lack completeness. Its last sentence, "Will there be another spring?" gives no indication that something is amiss here, and the voice never loses its rhythmic continuity. We get a society's full weight of lifethe mundane and the grand, the peaceful and the violent, the secular and the religious. As the novel progresses, this once tolerant and peaceful society suddenly finds itself in the grip of a vicious cycle of violence as Muslim militants, rejecting the ballot, try to take over the country by force. They are ruthless and methodical, and are determined to eliminate all opposition. Soon they will have a brutal theocracy in place, and soon the country will be on a path of no return.

The main character, Boualem Yekker, has grown up among books, music, and art in a society long accustomed to secularism. But now a theocracy is being forced upon the whole nation, and beheading guarantees that no one dares to ask why. The Vigilant Brothers, an ominous sight to behold in their Afghan-style garb and heavy guns, are not willing to settle for anything less than a totalized order. They have a special hate for women, writers, and artists. Music, painting, and sculpture have all been banned; destroyed instruments, slashed canvases, and smashed statues litter the city streets. Women, once everywhere to be seen, now are mostly confined to the home, looking like "faceless black shadows."

Yekker has one friend left, Ali Elbouligna. In complete silence the two sit for hours in Boualem's ransacked bookstore. Like millions, they take refuge in memory. They recall beautiful images: children, hand in hand, returning home from school; little boys and girls getting all excited about one more round of raucous play; men and women, groceries in hand, eagerly heading home just in time for the family dinner; a pregnant mother and her family going for a stroll by the beach; teenagers finally realizing that their newly found sensations were not mysteries after all.

In the face of tyranny, however, memory is at best a short-term defense. Boualem's bookstore is taken over by the vigilantes, and its contents are burnt in a high-minded display of orthodoxy. Then Yekker suddenly finds himself without a family; his wife, daughter, and son all desert him and join ranks with the fundamentalists. What once topped their list, a family vacation, a career, or foreign travel, is now brushed aside in favor of martyrdom. This is not your run-of-the mill tyranny; it is a tyranny that is hard even on nature: heaven and earth now only express "anger and sadness."

Even though the odds are against him, Yekker refuses to cave in, and despite the hopelessness of his situation, he fights on without ever allowing himself to act like a victim, thus saving the novel from the colorless language of victimhood. His resistance against fundamentalism can therefore be interpreted as a rebuke to the cult of culturalism, the currently fashionable postmodernist notion that ideology is dead, that truth is consensus-bound, and that foundations are no longer viable. In taking issue with such a notion, The Last Summer of Reason reminds us that the world's real problems are not cultural but political, and that once we muster the will to step outside of our closeted literature departments, we begin to realize, as Yekker does, that retreating into islands of privacy and cynicism is not going to change anything. Life has never been an abandoned book, nor will it ever be. The Last Summer of Reason boldly rejects the politics of indifference. As the Nobel Prizewinning Wole Soyinka writes in the foreword, this gem of a novel matters precisely because it is "beamed at the complacent conscience of the world."