The new wave

Andrew Hussey on the North African novelists at the gates of "Fortress Europe"

It's hard to spend any time in the streets of Tunis or Casablanca (I spent the summer teaching in both cities) without noticing a new kind of swagger in the way that people stroll around the decrepit but ever-busy French-built boulevards. Most clearly visible is a new economic prosperity - almost certainly due to American and EU money flowing into the region as a bulwark against Islamist extremism. One of the most intriguing results of this strategy has, ironically enough, been a growing cultural confidence among North Africans.

This can be seen everywhere from rap music to movies. It has also given momentum to younger writers in the Maghreb, who are turning back to Europe to find an audience. "We are sick of being told that as North Africans we cannot write in European languages," I was told by the poet Touria Nakkouch at a literary conference in Tunis. Nakkouch is an academic expert on Angela Carter as well as a poet, and she argues that North Africa is, and has always been, part of the European literary mainstream. From this point of view, she argues, colonialism is a historical accident that temporarily interrupted centuries of cross-cultural traffic between both sides of the Mediterranean. "We are not European," Nakkouch says, "but we have made European history and so our voices should be heard in Europe."

This attitude informs a new wave of novels from North Africa that refuse to be categorised as "third world chic". These include the likes of Rabat-based Youssef Elalamy's novel Paris, Mon Bled (Paris, My Manor). Sharper and funnier than Zadie Smith's White Teeth, it tells the tale of a streetwise Parisian Moroccan who travels back to Casablanca to find sex, love and disappointment. In the same vein, the Tangier-based writer Abdelattif Akbib - author of the novel Hearts of Embers - writes in English of a Moroccan generation haunted and tormented by the spectre of "fortress Europe" which lies just across the Straits of Gibraltar.

Even more interesting is the fact that many of this newly cosmopolitan generation of writers are women. The model here for younger writers is the venerable and distinguished figure of the Algerian novelist Assia Djebar, who was elected to the Académie française in 2005 but has never renounced her nationality or upbringing. Djebar's work is characterised by a high seriousness appropriate to an Académicienne. This is not the case, however, with Fawzia Zouari, the Tunisian author of the dark and witty La Deuxième Epouse (The Second Wife). This taboo-shattering tale of three generations of Algerian women has become a bestseller on both sides of the Mediterranean.

This obviously includes Algeria - the largest and potentially most powerful country in the region but which has yet to recover from the bloody civil war of the 1990s. Friends in Algiers tell me that the long journey back to recovery has already begun. I plan to visit in the New Year. Most of all, perhaps, I am keen to take the cultural temperature of the country that produced Albert Camus, and so changed the face of European literature.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis