The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout | Book Review

“Books — the closeness of them, their contact, their smell, and their contents — constitute the safest refuge against this world of horror. They are the most pleasant and the most subtle means of traveling to a more compassionate planet.”

Tahar Djaout (1954 – 1993) was one of the most talented Algerian writers of the 1980s and early 1990s. Having witnessed the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism and religious fanaticism in Algeria, he always strongly supported secularism and freedom of speech. He was murdered by the Islamic extremists in 1993 because of his writing and beliefs. As Alek Baylee Toumi states in the introduction to this book, the spring of 1993 marked the beginning of the genocide of intellectuals in Algeria – the intellectuocide with the lists of people to eliminate posted in the mosques which is also described by Djaout’s in The Last Summer of Reason. Other prominent Algerian intellectuals murdered by the religious extremists around that time were Hafid Senhadri, Djillali Lyabes, and Laadi Flici.

In 1994 and 1995, Algeria witnessed more journalists being murdered than in any other country in the world. It is important to mention here that Djaout as well as many other murdered writers of that era often considered themselves Muslims, secular, tolerant, open-minded but their belief system did not comply with bigoted worldview of the religious and political extremists.

Tahar Djaout, as Toumi writes, spoke out “a little too well and a little too loud, and he paid for it with his own life”. Tahar Djaout took a courageous stand against exclusion and intolerance. In one of his articles, “Hatred in Front of Us”, Djaout wrote: “If fascism triumphed in Germany at the end of the 1930s, it is not because there were a lot of fascists, but because there were not enough democrats”.

In his introduction Toumi quotes after Father Martin Niemoller’s famous poem:

” (…) First they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. (…) Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me”.

Today in the Western world we witness a lot tolerance for intolerant views directed towards other minorities in the false name of political correctness or cultural difference – therefore, books such as The Last Summer of Reason should be widely read and the name of Tahar Djout should be better known.

When it comes to the book itself, words fail me to describe The Last Summer of Reason – it is in some way a very Orwellian story. If you enjoy Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World, then I would urge you to get yourself a copy of The Last Summer of Reason.

The Last Summer of Reason, which Djaout wrote in French, is his last book, which was published posthumously, and it is often considered as unfinished.  The English translation includes a forward by the great Nigerian writer, Wole Soyinka and the introduction by the Algerian literature professor, Alek Baylee Toumi. If you ever get a copy of this book, it is crucial to read words by Soyinka and Toumi  – please don’t skip it

The story chronicles the slow progression of intolerance through the eyes of a bookseller and how it is for an ordinary citizen to live under the oppressive religious and political dictatorship run by the extremists. This short novel evolves around Boualem Yekker, a bookseller living in the unnamed city somewhere in Algeria. His country has been slowly overtaken by the religious fundamentalists, the country that once was a republic with freedom of speech, secular values, equality rights for women and men. Boualem witnesses those changes around him, his daughter and son become brainwashed and subsequently they also join the flock of hate, opposing their father liberal and secular worldview. The world around him becomes “aphasic, opaque, and sullen; it is wearing mourning clothes”. Boualem is alone facing the new religious dictatorship, but in contradictions to many of his fellow citizens, he peacefully resists the Islamic fundamentalism.  In the book Boualem says at one point that the fundamentalists persecute “more than people’s opinions”, they persecute “people’s ability to create and propagate beauty. ”

People no longer visit his bookshop to read or buy a book by Proust, Dostoyevsky, or Keats. The new order does not allow it – people are either too scared or they accepted a new religious order where there is no room for doubt or dissent.  Boualem finds comfort in his books but also these books can put him in danger of losing his own life.

Djaout also describes the world where the youth including children behave like fanatics. Boualem starts receiving death threats because of selling books which do not comply with the belief system imposed by the religious fanatics.

Djaout portrays the changing landscape of Algeria of the early 1990s  when books were burnt, intellectuals, journalists, writers were murdered, unveiled women were molested and beaten up, anyone who refused to think and act like the extremists  was killed, music and mixed gender events were now forbidden, women had to reduce their presence  to “nameless and faceless black shadow”, only a few types of clothing was permitted and everyone was obliged to wear them, the working hours were regulated by the rhythm of the prayers, all modern literature was forbidden except for books which comply with the Holy Book according to the extremists interpretation.

Throughout the book we are in the mind of Boualem, we see what he thinks, what he dreams about, we are there when he remembers his beautiful childhood, but we also there when he experiences fear. He often feels small and vulnerable in face of the new reality. He was one of the people “suffering from a new malady: an overdeveloped memory”.

As a bookseller, Boualem sells dreams in the form of essays, novels . “Only dreaming is still allowed to those who know how to find refuge within themselves”. He is an idealist and free thinker who strongly believes that as long as “music can transport the spirit, painting can make the core bloom with a rapture of colours, and poetry can make the heart pound with rebellion and hope”, the religious fundamentalists will gain nothing.

For Boualem, “books — the closeness of them, their contact, their smell, and their contents — constitute the safest refuge against this world of horror. They are the most pleasant and the most subtle means of traveling to a more compassionate planet” and they have been “the compost in which Boualem’s life ripened”.  Boualem has a particularly strong affection for persecuted writers, he prefers Keats to Lord Byron, Rousseau to Voltaire, and Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy.

Boualem is extremely lonely, and notes “how little our own life belongs to us, to what extent is becomes useless as soon as one is confronted with oneself, freed from the conflicts, bondage, worries, or joys those to whom our destiny is linked impose on or bring to us. There is an uncontrollable panic in finding oneself alone with the world.” He notices that there is a huge abyss separating him – who has read some thousands of books from Plato to Kawabata, Iqbal Kazteb, Octavio Pax and Kafka– from the men who never consulted any book – but it was them who gained power to govern the entire society. When thinking about all the changes around him, Boualem often reflects about his own relatives who did not have a single book in their home: “Every time he visited, he used to wonder how those people could live, without the smell of paper, without turning pages in which metaphors, ideas, and adventures were rustling”.

Boualem considered the separation from his books as “the greatest upheaval he had faced in his life”.

In a real life, Djaout like the protagonist of his book, Boualem, also received many death threats before the Islamic fundamentalists killed him. Therefore, even more so The Last Summer of Reason should be read and re-read. Djaout showed the society that if it remains indifferent to the changes, to curtailment of basic freedom, the fanaticism will take over. He also outlines the difference between people who preach truth with certainty, and the ones who doubt – the importance of doubting and questioning is the basis for every civilized society: his city was divided into two antagonistic spaces: “one, the majority, filled with the men sparked by faith and certitude, and the other handed over to questioning, anxiety and bullying. The two do not communicate, do not look at each other, do not greet each other. And the one of the spaces has ended up reducing the other to silence before eradicating it.”

This book is not only a strong voice against Islamic fundamentalism, but also a strong voice against all forms of ideological fanaticism, including religious and political. Despite being written almost 30 years ago, this book is extremely relevant in the current times.

Djaout posed the question in his novel – how long would you resists the change that he experienced? How long would you resist to keep your basic freedom of thought?

The closing words of this novel written by Djaout shortly before being murdered:

“Will there be another spring”?

This is a compelling and haunting piece of writing which deserves to be better known to the wider audience.

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