Assia Djebar: Procession
14. January 2010 12:22
About Albert and Frantz
Why do I in turn recount the death of the writer, still young and famous, which occurred unexpectedly that 4th of January 1960, on the road to Villeblevin (Yonne): I'm going to reconstitute that same day as it happened in Algiers, in the afternoon. The news turns, hesitates, twists, around a lady sitting by her window in Belcourt.
January days in Algiers, not far from the Jardin d'Essai, the celebrated public gardens: the swifts have left, almost all.... Still just a few in the branches of the plane trees. The sharp, almost white sunlight of a cold winter's afternoon. The woman is waiting by the window.
They have come—two neighbors and a relative. They have started to speak: "Albert..." She heard the name three times. What, Albert...? Her mind is numb. She decided, a while ago, to count the days: since they read her that letter last week: "I'll come back before the summer. I'll bring you here for a holiday!"
Since then she has decided to count the days. Yes, she will go, with Albert. Even over there. "What is "a holiday?"
She isn't afraid any more in Belcourt. Another attack, a month ago, but not in her street. She so often feels like sleeping. Peace. Yes, she'll tell Albert, and he'll understand: even in Algiers, even with these attacks, these explosions from time to time. Yes, peace, at last, in Algiers." In three months, in six months, Albert, her son, will come.
The two neighbors and the other, the relative, are still there. They don't speak.... They look at each other.
She lifts her head towards them, from her chair; she makes as to smile. Her lips are about to murmur "Albert."... She's almost about to spin out a whole sentence, to say that from now on she'll count the days. Six months, then three months, then tomorrow.... Suddenly she gets up, arms stretched out in front of her. They steady her, gather her up.
"We'll stay by you."
Finally she's understood: their silence, the way in which each of them looks at her, their embarrassment. It's come to her: a black veil suddenly falls over her, dressed in black. It has hit her: Albert won't come, he won't ever come again!
She doesn't fall. She sways. The relative takes her in his arms. At that moment her other son comes in: his face reddened and shattered. He runs towards her, arms outstretched. He needs her.
From that moment on, she doesn't know any more: they've taken her towards the other room, towards her iron bedstead. The relative and the son stay there through the rest of the day. She doesn't know any more. Or rather, yes, she does; peace, in this town, really is here: returned like a swarm of silent bees; stretching out.
Albert's mother is going to count the days, the months. Up to six months; then three months. Peace, infinite white.
Six months later, Albert's mother was to be buried right beside her own mother, dead three years earlier: two ladies, the old and awesome Spanish woman and her gentle, nearly mute daughter...
Albert Camus lies almost opposite them, in Lourmarin, on the other side of the sea.
At the beginning of autumn 1961 Frantz Fanon, a West Indian psychiatrist who has recently acquired, that same year, an international reputation with the publication of The Wretched of the Earth, returns to Tunis to see the G.P.R.A. He's been the representative of the "Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic" in Ghana and Guinea. That is where he felt the first onset of his illness. His wife, Josie, was to tell me at length about those days of waiting and uncertainty in Tunis. The verdict seems worrying: leukemia has made its presence known. They quickly decide that Fanon should get the best care possible: he agrees to go for treatment to the United States. In New York the Algerian delegation to the United Nations includes among its members some of Fanon's personal friends.
They explain, over the telephone, that they've been able to get him admitted to the Bethesda Hospital, three hours by train from New York: its center for the treatment of leukemia has the highest success rate in the country. American Democrats—friends of the Algerian struggle—will be there watching over him.
Josie, thirty-two years old, and mother of a young boy, hopes to be able to go with him. She doesn't express her desire out loud to Frantz ("It'll be a month, perhaps two at the most," he tells her, undoubtedly to reassure her, to reassure himself as well).
She was to admit to me, years later: "Up to the end, I hoped: they, his friends, those who liked Frantz and admired him, it seemed to me that they would understand: that you couldn't send him such a long way to be treated alone, that if I were looking after him.... Clearly they saw him as a man of iron, indestructible! And he..."
She stiffened, then added, hardly bitter: "I understood his point of view; he thought that all the expenses he was incurring were already quite enough for the Algerian Revolution!"
She remained silent, then: "He died alone, in New York, two months later. Alone!" she repeated harshly.
We spent a summer's month together in a village by the sea, half an hour from Algiers. She would get up early; she would pour out can after can of water to wash the veranda floor. We would stay there, all morning long, contemplating the sea. It was August 1988, we felt good: the rest of the day we would be surrounded by our friends, our children.
Josie would recall the past; then become silent. I would work each night, as I heard the fisherman setting out to sea in their boats.
The first days of October 1988, Algiers reached a fevered pitch; under Josie's balcony in El-Biar, adolescents in revolt were the first to set fire to police cars.
The next day and the following days, this time in the heart of Algiers, the army swarmed the capital, and, confronted with peaceful demonstrations, opened fire: six hundred young people were shot down.
From one end of the rioting town to the other, not being able to meet, we would speak on the phone: I still hear today Josie's enraged voice commenting endlessly on the scenes that she'd observed or that people had told her about.
Once more, O Frantz, the "wretched of the earth!"
Translated from the French by David Kelley and Marjolijn de Jager