I did a French with Linguistics degree at King's College, London and this was one of the books on the reading list for a course on Maghrebi (French North African) writing.
This tale of memory and searching is written by Assia Djebar, a veritable G in francophone African literature from Algeria. Djebar, real name Fatima-Zohra Imalayen, writes mostly about the struggles of women especially in relation to Islam, the effects of war on the woman's mind and artfully deals with the clashes and harmonies between old and new, tradition and progress.
Assia Djebar was born in Cherchell, a small coastal town near Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Her father was a french teacher and the culmination of this and her study of classic arabic gave her the linguistic flexibilty to manipulate the french language giving it Arabic sounds and rhythms.
Her feminist stance, use of French and often dissident voice has led to much international praise, but also to hostility from nationalistic critics in Algeria.
In this novel Djebar portrays herself as a journalist and returning daughter to Cherchell, once called Césarée, home to research the story and find the bones of a legendary female Mujahddin (fighter/warrior) Zoulikha Oudai who helped the nationalistic rebels resist the French during the Algerian civil war in 1976.
As is commonplace in the work of Djebar, she portrays herself as an outsider, named only l'invitee, la visiteuse or l'etrangere*, and she delves, rather like a anthropological archaeologist into the past of the whole region through the recollections of the daughters, friends and acquaintances of Zoulikha.
For those who know Djebar's work this novel finds itself a stepping-stone in a path of writing begun with 'Women of Algiers in their apartments' (1980) and 'So Vast the Prison' (1995) and thus continues in the literary traditions of these two novels, this is perhaps the reason why Djebar installs an aura of déjà vu in the prelude to the book.
Djebar manages to interweave reality and fiction in this work, using her real conversations with the 'women of Césarée' with her own imagined scenes from that heated time in the 70s when Zoulikha was alive and the war raged. Through the visiting of the ruins of the ancient town, the whole war as experienced by the little towns of Algeria is portrayed and revisited.
The title of the book means The Woman without a Grave and this talks of Zoulikha's unknown final resting place, a result of her assumed murder by the french military and the consequent eradication of her name in history.
This book is laden with imagery and has an intensity which is thick almost to the point of viscosity, drawing the reader fully into the stories within the story and into the humid, heady atmosphere of post and pre-independence Algeria.
I must admit that this book is rather heavy-going but can be read quickly if focused on, I could not really write a synopsis, evaluation book review on this one because there are many intertwining synopses and undercurrents of history and feminism.
Djebar does not find the real bones of Zoulikha, and to my mind there is the suggestion that she will never be laid to rest in even a metaphorical grave. The stories surrounding her are often fantastical, but sometimes mundane, embittered (such as the tale of one daughter who felt abandoned) but also laudatory (as shown in another daughter's heroine-view of her mother) and therefore the many contradictions ensure that her story is always being 'exhumed'.
All in all this is a powerful testament to the ongoing strength of storytelling and especially of female remembrance even in the most paternalistic societies. Although Djebar writes pessimistically about the ability of women to shine in an overbearing patriarchy, here she fairly paints Zoulikha as a real heroine, even if she does not have a day to remember her. the honesty of the accompanying portrayals of this normal abnormal woman illustrate the human side to the ghostly figure of the grave-less heroine.
*the invited, the visitor, the stranger (All translations my own )