So often it’s cast as “us against them,” a battle of cultures, West versus East, or even a “crusade,” with all its loaded implications. For several reasons, Tahar Djaout’s novel The Last Summer of Reason demonstrates the error of using such thinking when it comes to radical Islamists. In fact, it shows that the impact of and battle against fundamentalism is far from us versus them.
The Last Summer of Reason examines life from the viewpoint of Boualem Yekker, a bookseller in a republic modeled after Djaut’s Algeria. Taliban-like fundamentalists called the “Vigilant Brotherhood” now control the government and the state. “Some men, citing divine will and legitimacy, decided to shape the world in the image of their dream and their madness,” Boualem says. “Many citizens discovered that God could reveal a grisly face.” The V.B.s have renamed the republic “the Community in the Faith.” Its members “act as if they are in a new kind of western at which they play at collecting as many scalps of heathens and offenders of the laws of God as possible.” Weather reports disappear because “how can one argue and quibble over patterns known only to God?”
Despite the resemblance to the Taliban, Djaout was writing amidst a civil war in the early 1990s between Algeria’s military government and radical Islamists. He was murdered by an Islamic fundamentalist group in 1993. The unedited manuscript of The Last Summer of Reason was found among his papers after his death. It was published without editorial change, leaving modern readers to wonder if he would have elaborated on the tale rather than leave it as a slim, almost vignette-like phillipic.
First published posthumously in French, the language in which it was written, in 1999, the book made its first U.S. appearance in January 2001. While it, of course, drew more attention with the advent of September 11, 2001, the book demonstrates the serious concern that existed among secular or mainstream Muslims about radical Islamists more than a decade ago. Yet it also shows seeming prescience on Djaout’s part. Although the Taliban did not take control of the Afghan government until three years after Djaout’s death, the book resounds more now because of them. He even describes V.B. members manning roadblocks as being “rigged out like Afghan warriors” and that some of the clothing worn by V.B. members being called “Afghans,” reflecting that the mujahideen forces battling the Soviets in Afghanistan were grabbing the attention of the Muslim world.
The Last Summer of Reason unquestionably tends toward polemics at times. Still, Djaout’s skills as a poet, novelist and journalist give us a pitiable yet endearing character who sees and experiences firsthand a variety of the ramifications of fundamentalist government — restrictions on women, conversion of the education system into a vehicle to inculcate the young, the societal peer pressure to agree or at least conform, and a description of a demonstration that seems to take you in with the crowds.
While books are the foundation of Boualem’s life, flora and memory are key concepts in his story. Flora helps exemplify the variety of ideas and robust debate that hopefully germinate and take root in a healthy and growing society needs. Here, though, state effort is focused on cutting away branches that do not meet V.B. standards and, if possible, destroying it at its roots.
The new order would like to prune humanity, but also every individual human being. Expurgate, amputate, purify. Of memory leave only what celebrates the Revelation, of knowledge leave only what asks no questions, of man leave only the part that is submissive to God — a God whose outlines have been carefully drawn by the new masters: He knows no love, no forgiveness, no compassion and no tolerance. He is the God of vengeance and punishment.
Thus, as Alek Baylee Toumi points out in the introduction to this newly released University of Nebraska Press edition, it is no coincidence that Yekker means “he stood up” in Djaout’s native tongue. Even though Boualem’s wife and children leave him because they conform to the fundamentalist approach and consider him a pariah, he remains steadfast in his belief in words, ideas and philosophy on paper. Yet in feeling like he stands alone, memory is perhaps the only refuge because his society now breeds individual isolation and mistrust. This refuge contrasts sharply with the stark reality of his current life. And even though thousands of mainstream Muslims may agree with Boualem, “[e]veryone is barricaded behind a bulwark of hypocrisy and artificial piety.”
Through Boualem, Djaout makes it painfully clear that we cannot paint all Muslims with the same extremist brush, something that too often tends to happen in the wake of September 11th and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is, rather, a story of what fundamentalist Islamic extremists will do to their own. Nor is Djaout examining perils to which only Arab or Muslim countries are exposed. Comparisons can also be made to the cultural wars in the United States, where some seek to make science subservient to dogma. In Boualem’s world, the dictates of government-approved knowledge mean science can “pay attention only to those questions not settled in the Book.”
As much as Bjaout intended and we wish that this be a cautionary tale, it also reflects recent realities. That sad fact may lend even greater power to his work.
Boualem suddenly thinks of those distant relatives he would occasionally see in the country and who didn’t 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.
Tahar Djaout, The Last Summer of Reason