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Éditions Barzakh uses literature to explore postcolonial Algeria


In The Nation, Alice Kaplan tells the story of Éditions Barzakh, a remarkable Algerian publishing house started in 2000. Releasing mainly fiction and poetry, Éditions Barzakh has sought to use literature to negotiate the complex legacy of Algeria’s colonial past. It even came under fire for publishing the novel L’Effacement by Samir Toumi, which questions the entrenched social privileges of veterans of the Algerian war of independence. As Kaplan writes, Éditions Barzakh seeks to give voice to a new generation of cosmopolitan Algerian writers, while remaining firmly Algerian in outlook and sensibility. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Whereas postcolonial critics in American universities read Algerian literature for politics and for position, for a desire to see literature finally “decolonized,” Barzakh’s ambitions are different. For Hellal and Hadjadj, a decolonized literature is not necessarily a literature intent on striking a blow at the colonizer; it’s a literature that enjoys the freedom of its formal, stylistic choices, a literature that can escape the political stereotypes still at work in Algeria, where what you wear and which direction your satellite dish is aimed—east toward Mecca, north toward Paris—mark a person religiously and linguistically.

In 2013, Hellal and Hadjadj published a book that, to their astonishment, was embraced around the world as a supremely political work of literature. In Meursault, Contre-Enquête, Kamel Daoud recast Albert Camus’s The Stranger, giving a voice to the brother of the Arab killed by Meursault on the beach. The combination of very precise contemporary Algerian references and Camus’s familiar plot endowed the book with an astonishing plasticity and made it immediately relevant in any country struggling with senseless violence and “othered” populations—which is to say, most countries in the world. A full year after the initial Algerian publication, the novel was published in France by Actes Sud, which promoted it as if it were a brand-new book. It began to win prizes, and missed the biggest prize of all, the Goncourt, by one vote. In Algeria, 16,000 copies of the novel have been sold. In France, Actes Sud has sold a total of 242,000; and in the United States, sales of The Meursault Investigation, John Cullen’s translation for Other Press, have reached over 53,000 copies.

Now translated into more than 30 languages, Daoud’s novel has departed the closed system of Algerian literature in which, with the help of Barzakh, it was created. But the book’s commercial success hasn’t changed Barzakh’s fundamental mission. “In the end,” Hellal says, “the question that truly preoccupies us is this one: how to get someone to read, how to get them simply to hold a book in their hands. For us, every day, this is a deeply personal and social imperative.”

Image via The Nation.