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Open Access Publications from the University of California

"Le retour de `La Question': torture, memory, and narrative in contemporary French literature"

  • Author(s): Vendetti, Maria
  • Advisor(s): Tlatli, Thoraya
  • et al.

This dissertation examines, through literary and testimonial texts, the transmission and dissemination of narratives about torture that took place during the Algerian War of Independence. Fictional depictions of limit experiences such as torture are deeply rooted in discourses about remembering and forgetting. I argue that the frequently used term "open secret" is a misnomer which is taken up in literature in order to be critiqued through narrative fragmentation and shifting generic frames. My project is interdisciplinary, and studies literary and anthropological discussions of torture as both a politicized and sexualized system. I address the problem of representing torture and raise questions about the status of historiography and its place within French, Algerian, and trans-Mediterranean discourses.

My first chapter, "Histories repeating," examines how and why fictional accounts of torture and its aftermath tend to deliberately conflate and intertwine various historical periods. Making individual memories of physical violence the subject of fiction, the authors I discuss narrativize the historical reality of torture in order to illustrate the longue durée and endless repeatability of violence. Being tortured and witnessing torture affects how one is able to transmit the memory of that act, as illustrated by the use of imbricated and hallucinatory narratives in generically diverse texts. Novels by Leïla Marouane and Antonin Varenne, and a short story by Assia Djebar, reveal the persistence of the Algerian War of Independence in contemporary fiction, and oblige readers to adopt a multidirectional approach to reading, as the text employs the same strategy to remember (and forget) extreme violence. In Chapter One, I also argue that texts employing a multidirectional approach to memories of the Algerian War and its aftermaths often work to de-inscribe the law that is written onto bodies. By creating characters that are, in one way or another, survivors and narrators of torture, the texts reject the hegemonic markers of torture, and criticize the systems that uphold victime/bourreau identitarianism.

In Chapter Two, "The Tortured Body and the Narrativization of the Impossible," I turn to the oeuvre of Assia Djebar, whose career-long engagement with questions of history and individual and collective memory is evident in all of her texts, to discuss how the transmission of the story of torture is inscribed on the body. I refer to the mise en récit of these stories as a narrativization of the impossible, an impossibility that is predicated on the female body as a concrete trace of an act that is often denied or repressed by the individual. In the collection Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement (1980) and novel La Femme sans sépulture (2002), Djebar rejects memory as a process at the service of the post-Independence State, and the various forms of transmission of violent narratives in her texts are a movement against monolithic forms of history-making. Rather than taking up positions as lieux de mémoire, static sites that work towards a national conception of memory and history, the narratives I examine refuse memorialization and allow instead an open-ended narrative that must be physically passed down in order to circulate in the face of renewed violence in Algeria.

In my final chapter, "Testimonial texts: writing the obscene," I move away from fictional accounts of the aftermath of torture to explore the testimonial genre. Looking to first-person texts by Henri Alleg, Djamila Boupacha and Louisette Ighilarhiz, I argue that metropolitan French intellectuals had to intervene in their circulation and reception in order to mitigate the social and political unacceptability of these texts that are figured as "obscene." Ross Chambers' analysis of testimonial writing as both "untimely" and "obscene" acts in Untimely Interventions: AIDS Writing, Testimonial and the Rhetoric of Haunting underpins my argument that the description of torture in testimonial narratives is an exploration of the obscene; a state of affairs that allows for continual personal and systematic denial of the existence of torture and torture victims. The prevalence of sexual violence and rape and its place in French and Algerian cultural and social memory is also central to Chapter Three and my discussion of the textually obscene: torture is both hors scène, out of sight of the public, and obscene in the kind of limit experience it means for the victim and the torturer. The contrast between private and public discourses and the dissonance that can occur when narratives try to cross the public/private divide complicate how stories of torture are made available and received by readers.

Reading testimonial accounts as textual incursions that embody the obscenity of torture and its physical effects, I argue that the paratextual support of French intellectuals was a necessary aspect of the transmission of primary torture narratives during the war. This mediation simultaneously shielded readers from the shock of events that were purposely kept "off-stage," and, paradoxically, highlighted the details of testimony that were the most contentious: descriptions of sexual violence, protracted legal struggles, and the blurred border between the French "us" and the Algerian "them." Multidirectional memory, another form of mediation that transmits narratives of torture, describes a shuttling between separate traumatic memories that are ultimately told together. I use Michael Rothberg's theory to explain and analyze the hinging effect often present more recent fictional texts on the Algerian War that are preoccupied with both the legacy of the War of Independence and the more immediate violence of Algeria's décennie noire. Using these narrative theories, I argue that the transmission of narratives of torture, be they fictional or testimonial, relies on a certain degree of mediation or deferral. I posit the transmission, or making public, of these stories as both individual and collective, and marked by a necessarily complex relationship to history, memory, and the physical traces of violence.

By analyzing both Algerian and hexagonal French literature that addresses torture during the Algerian War, my dissertation frames the "Question" of state-sponsored violence as an enduring transnational topos that creates a proliferation of ghosts, unanswerable questions, and unsolvable crimes. As a project that engages with both hexagonal French and Francophone texts, my dissertation offers a new theory of how literature can engage with and defy taboos on memorial transmission and publically-recognizable grievances, and how the memory of torture is narrativized and circulated.

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