Reviewed by Nkosi Sibanda
"I AM RIGHT, YOU ARE DEAD."
In this dark fable of the vagaries of conformism and censorship, late Algerian poet and journalist, Tabar Djaout, murdered by Islamic fundamentalist assassins as he left his home in Bainem, Algeria in 1993, gives a wryly discomforting tale of the pernicious possibilities within fanatic theocracy. The novel draws from Djaout's rich command of poetic prose, understanding of Islam as practiced by extremists, and political persecution in Algeria. In defense of individual imagination, Djaout offers courage, passion, and quiet defiance. In the foreword, written by famed Nigerian laureate Wole Soyinka, the tone of the book is unmistakably invoked: "It is the setting of the mind, not a question, but a mantra, "I am right, you are wrong," whose ultimate goal of unreason is "I am right, you are dead."
The story is told through the eyes of a reluctant bookstore owner, Boualem Yekker, who refuses to give up his bookstore to the radically conservative party known as the Vigilant Brothers, a group that seeks to control every element of life according to the laws of their stringent moral theology: no work of beauty created by human hands should rival the wonders of their god. Most of the book consists of chapters in which Yekker finds himself increasingly boxed in by government repression. Once he realizes he is basically powerless to fight their efforts, he begins to look back on the more romantic aspects of his own past with an odd mixture of bitterness and nostalgia.
Boualem Yekker is a man who, by his own confession, suffers from too much memory. He remembers the fuller life of tolerance and diversity and believes that the authentic life instinct is originality and variety: a glorification of the arts. He still dreams of another summer where there is reason and a spring for hope. In so many ways, Yekker represents the historic tradition of diversity and imagination that the new regime cannot replace no matter how totalitarian and ridiculously bizarre they become.
The Last Summer Of Reason offers the reader a humanistic testament to the struggle against conformism. It is a celebration of culture, art, beauty and expression as the pillar of human existence. Djaout succeeds in depicting fanaticism in its worst and repressive form: one extremist becomes much like the other, until they all become one faceless mass; shiftless, dangerous and unshaken by the reason of past existence. It is a dry plot to a tale reminiscent of the times and understood more closely by the fact that the author never saw its publication. The book's only shortfall seems to be a somewhat threadbare plot absent of any real explanation as to how the Vigilant Brothers came into power. It is this backdrop that generates a chasm for the reader. We can only postulate that Djaout intended for the whole story to be told by the reader, and that the gap in narrative is meant for the reader to postulate both historic and contemporary events that have led to an authoritarian regime coming into power.
The Last Summer Of Reason deserves to be read by anyone interested in finding out what the world will lose in a repressive regime where reason is replaced by brute force and the elusive notion of a perfect nation. Djaout questions the past, the present and the future. His words capture the reason to all that is life and the continued sustenance needed to enrich it. It is a poetic message: historic and beautiful.
Nkosi Sibanda is a freelance writer. His area of interest is African social and political development.