Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud’s first book, The Meursault Investigation (translated by John Cullen), a retelling of Albert Camus’ L’Étranger in which the brother of the man Meursault murders in the original novel gives his side of the story, made quite a splash a few years back. Daoud’s follow-up novel is again set in Algeria, but this time around he’s presenting a less urban tale, taking us instead to the fringes of the desert in the country’s south. There are more literary influences on show here, but this time around the writer has cast his net far wider. You see, despite having some issues, the man we’re about to meet is a formidable reader – not to mention a prolific writer…
Zabor or The Psalms (translated by Emma Ramadan, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is the story of Ishmael, a thirty-year-old resident of the village of Aboukir, not far from the edge of the Sahara desert. He’s the eldest son of Hadj Brahim, the wealthy local butcher and a man of wide repute, but as he’s the issue of the butcher’s brief first marriage, his stepmother’s wiles see him exiled to a small house away from the main residence on a hill. It’s here that, in the company of his unmarried aunt, Hadjer, he spends his time, sleeping by day and roaming the village by night.
Despite the lack of any real occupation, he does have a task to occupy his time, which consists of a host of books he scribbles in continuously. He claims that by writing the stories of all around him, he can cheat death and keep everyone safe, and even if he’s generally mocked and shunned by the villagers, many turn to him when they’re at death’s door, giving his situation a kind of tacit acceptance. The story begins with his father on his death bed, and Ishmael’s hostile half-brothers reluctantly seek him out in a last attempt to extend the old man’s life. But will his powers help him save the man who ruined his life – and, more, importantly, does he want them to?
A portrait of an unusual man, and a story examining the role of language, Zabor or The Psalms provides an inventive and enjoyable look at superstition and village life. Ishmael, the local oddity, is nicknamed Zabor (psalms) by the local children for the books he constantly writes in, but his creations have more in common with One Thousand and One Nights for their aim in keeping death at bay. It’s a book of two parts, with one strand featuring his father’s illness, and the summons, even if this first attempt is ended abruptly by his impatient and suspicious relatives.
The other half of the book focuses on Zabor’s life, and how he became who he is. As a child suffering from fits, probably the result of his early abandonment, he seeks refuge in language, discovering the differences between his aunt’s village dialect and the Arabic he learns at school at an early age. From there he moves on to the formal Arabic of religious recitation, and the French he teaches himself from old pulp novels, from which he develops his own voice in an attempt to make sense of the world.
The narrator’s ‘gift’, whether real or imaginary, is his way of coping with life as an outcast in a rural, traditional outpost. He’s well aware of his status as an outsider, and the way he’s regarded by the villagers:
I was a sort of necessary monster, born of a law, but also the caricature of a body, a third uncircumcised sex, between women and men.
p.116 (Other Press, 2021)
Beset by mental issues and loneliness, he despairs at the reliance he sees on the only book most of the villagers will ever open, and seeks to find meaning outside it. He’ll read anything – novels, newspapers, ingredient labels – in an attempt to find out more about life, and his place in it.
Interestingly, it’s not just Zabor who suffers in this way, and Daoud shows us a place where many are oppressed by custom. Aunt Hadjer shows Zabor unconditional love, and she has lots to spare as a woman left on the shelf for trivial reasons (dark skin, slender build). Djemila, a woman our friend dreams of ‘saving’, is widowed, and thus almost unclean. She’s one of many women who are hidden away, with only her head seen through a window, hence Zabor’s clever description of her as ‘decapitated’ – which might as well be true for all the outside world knows of her.
However, Zabor or The Psalms is also a novel of place. The limits of Zabor’s voluntary exile are beautifully described, from the house on the hill and the graveyards at either end of the village, to the forests and fields surrounding it. On the horizon, there’s the ominous Sahara, always present in a corner of the villagers’ mind, and at the climax of the novel, it finally takes centre stage, ridiculing Zabor’s claims to be able to control death and blowing away all of his hopes.
Daoud’s novel is a fairly lengthy, slow-moving work, and there are times when it gets bogged down a little, with the dual strands of the death throes of Zabor’s father and the son’s story of growing up not always quite balanced. The narrator himself acknowledges this tendency towards tangential development in places:
I’m getting off topic, I know, but I can’t make progress any other way. (p.93)
Still, it’s a beautifully written work, so descriptive and evocative that you can almost see yourself there. Ramadan (the translator of Anne Garréta and Brice Matthieussent) seems to be drawn to this kind of novel, and her work here is superb, never setting a foot wrong with Daoud’s swirling, elegant prose.
It all makes for an enjoyable story of a man trying to make sense of his world, and using language to reshape it to his desires:
Why do we write and read books? To amuse ourselves, responds the crowd, uncritically. Wrong: the need is more ancient, more vital. Because there is death, there is an end, and thus a beginning that it is up to us to restore in ourselves, a first and final explanation. To write or recount is the only way to turn back time, counter it, restore it, or control it. There’s a link between conjugation and metaphysics, I’m sure of it. It’s the first law to decipher. (p.166)
Which is all well and good, but eventually Daoud is forced to reveal the inevitable shortcomings of this approach. Yes, words can be powerful, but sometimes you need to accept life for what it is and stop hiding behind language…
…at which point, I’m uncomfortably aware that it might be time for me to go and do something more useful, instead…