Abdelouahab Aissaoui’s novel Al-Diwan Al-Isparti (The Spartan Court) has been announced as the winning novel of the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, standing out “for its stylistic brilliance.” It is polyphonic, with multiple voices telling the story.
The announcement was made online on 14 April via a YouTube live video due to the cancellation of the ceremonies that were planned to take place in Abu Dhabi.
The novel follows the interconnected lives of five characters in Algiers from 1815 to 1833. The first, Dupond, is a French journalist covering the colonial campaign against Algeria, and the second, Caviard, is a former soldier in Napoleon’s army who finds himself a prisoner in the city and later becomes a planner for the campaign. The other three Algerian characters have different attitudes to the Ottoman and French colonial powers.
Ibn Mayyar thinks that politics is a means of building relationships with the Ottomans and even the French, whilst Hamma al-Sallaoui believes that revolution is the only means of achieving change. The fifth character, Douja, is suspended somewhere between these: she witnesses the transformation of Algiers helplessly and is forced to become a part of it, for one must live according to the city’s rules or leave.
“In general, historical novels do not reconstruct stories for the sake of the stories themselves. Their main objective is to search for questions and concerns that we face now and have faced before, in the context in which they first appeared,” the author said in an interview after being shortlisted.
The head of the judges’ panel Muhsin Al-Musawi described the novel as giving the readers a multi-layered insight into the historical occupation of Algeria and, from this, the conflicts of the entire Mediterranean region, with characters embodying different interests and intersecting visions.
The novel invites the reader to gain a greater understanding of life under occupation and the different forms of resistance that grow against it. With its deep, historical narrative structure, the novel does not live in the past, but rather it challenges the reader to question present reality.
Aissaoui is an Algerian novelist born in Djelfa, Algeria in 1985. He graduated in Electromechanical Engineering from Zayan Ashour University in Djelfa and works as a maintenance engineer. In 2012, his first novel, Jacob's Cinema, came first in the novel category of the President of the Republic Prize.
He won the Assia Djebar Prize, widely regarded as the most important prize for novels in Algeria, for his second novel, Mountain of Death (2015), which tells the story of Spanish communists imprisoned in North African camps after losing the Spanish Civil War. In 2016, he took part in the IPAF Nadwa (creative writing workshop for talented young writers).
His third novel Circles and Doors (2017) won the 2017 Kuwaiti Suad Al-Sabah Novel Prize, and in 2017 he won the Katara Novel Prize in the unpublished novel category for Testament of the Deeds of the Forgotten Ones.