Al-Diwan Al-Isparti (The Spartan Court), by Abdelouahab Aissaoui, Algeria: Dar Mim 2018. pp. 388.
Some novels we cannot put down until read cover to cover. The reader does not want them to end due to the beauty of the style, the originality of the story and the talent of the writer. Other novels, if possible, the reader would prevent from being published in the first place, to avoid a painful journey that should never have been taken. When the novel is a winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, or the Arabic Booker, the reader expects the winning novel to be distinguished. Unfortunately, “The Spartan Court,” or Al-Diwan Al-Al-Isparti by Algerian novelist Abdelouahab Aissaoui finds its place well-deserved in the second category of books.
The technical genre of this book would be historical novel, but if the writer’s purpose was to confuse the reader and distort the historical record intentionally, he couldn’t have done a better job.
The novel is an account of the last few years of the Ottoman occupation of Algiers and the first three years of French colonialism. This is told through five characters, two French men and three Algerians (two men and a woman), divided into five parts. The writer used flashbacks as a technique while each of the characters tells his story in the specific year and month chosen by the writer. He starts in March 1833, passing by the year 1830, choosing moments from the invaders log dating back to 1816, returning to 1833 again. This alone is confusing to the reader, distorting events and characters. At one point, the reader is not sure who is telling the story or tying together the sequence of events or the development of the characters.
The writer tried to show both sides of the French invasion through two complicated characters: Caviard, who was pro-invasion and occupied an important position in planning for the Algerian campaign, and DuPont, a journalist who defended the freedom of the Algerian people and thought that the invasion was a wrongful act. Towards the end we understand that he is admiring the ideas of Saint Simon and his followers. Both characters send letters to each other that constitute conversations. But the writing style is so confusing to the point that the reader is not sure who is who in their thoughts and interactions. An example is the quote, “People’s destinies are not related to intangible beliefs, but rather to only themselves” — a quote from one of the letters Caviard wrote to DuPont. Either character could have said these words. The distinction between them shows only in actions, not thoughts, caught in a dreadful writing style that blends the two indistinguishably. Another quote that could come from either is, “Believing in God during the time of weakness is nonsense; the real believers believe in God in their glorious moments." A Saint Simonian sympathiser or a soldier who has seen victories and defeats in the battlefield could have said these words and it would have made sense in either case. The characters are weakly designed.
Many of the events in the novel were told several times by each of the characters involved, such as the killing of the pimp responsible for transforming Doga, the innocent peasant girl, into a prostitute after kidnapping, beating and raping her, a systematic process that he used with all the girls he managed; providing women to soldiers is a job that brings him wealth and influence with the rulers of Algeria, whether French or Turks. The murder detail account was told in El-Selawy’s words (the killer), a kind of popular hero with no followers, just voicing his opposition to the Ottoman occupation, exposing their rotten policies and discriminative activities towards the Algerians and determined to murder the man who polluted the girl that he eventually fell for and promised to come back for after he had to flee the city to join the resistance after the murder.
In an attempt to see the glass half full in the novel, Doga’s character appeared to be was the only perceptive one when she realised that when the young men who visit brothels chose the older women to have their first encounters with, they are actually looking for their mothers. An old idea that was discussed numerous times by much more heavyweight writers and psychologists, but the writer wanted to give some depth to Doga’s character.
Due to the era chosen by the writer, in which two colonial powers struggle to control Algeria, the military factor was present in the narration, the psyche of soldiers explained taking into consideration the kind of wars that materialised during the 19th century. Aissaoui figured that soldiers only care about the spoils that will come with victory; the nation’s glory is an extra benefit.
The details of controlling Algiers are boring and neutral. The writer managed through the dullness of the narration to reduce the reader’s sympathy for the victims to near non-existent as if it was intentional.
Ibn Miar, one of the Arab characters in the novel managed to politically challenge the French occupation and pushed the French political powers opposing the invasion to send an investigative committee to determine whether to stay in Algeria or leave. The crimes perpetrated by the French were documented but the result was ignoring any request to leave Algeria or fair treatment for the real land owners.
In order to brand the novel as a historical one, the writer gave some insights on how Turkish rulers played politics with the destiny of a whole country. The treaties signed with the French came out of weakness and they managed mainly to steal the wealth of the country and did not defend the country when they were supposed to. The real defenders were the normal population who eventually lost the war.
The choice of a confusing, disassembled erratic novel to win such a prestigious award makes us wonder about the standards of the critics who chose it, or the politics that lay beyond the choice. An educated guess on that would be that the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey) loses one of its colonies (in this case Algiers) and Turkish rulers are shown as invaders like any other colonial powers, and not as the protectors of Islam.