This was definitely a different read from what I usually stumble on. Assia Djebar’s So Vast the Prison is not meant for a casual reader, but for someone who is familiar with different ways of writing, and can find a thread in the not-so-logical trips between different time periods and subjects.
The protagonist is an Algerian woman named Isma. Although in the beginning the reader doesn’t know that. Isma is married, but has an affair with a younger man, and ends up divorcing her husband. The book starts out being abstract, and not that approachable. The language is quite complicated. The book takes several turns in its approachability, and once it’s over the first few humps, it is an enjoyable book to read. Could there be something lost in translation, I don’t know?
The second part of the book is about the lost written language of Berber. It is an interesting read, but there is no explanation why the book takes a complete turn in context. The prose changes here to pleasant and easily readable, and it stays that way for the rest of the book.
The third part takes us back to Isma’s life postdivorce. She has become a filmmaker. This part of the book reflects on the Algerian history through the eyes of women in Isma’s family; from Isma’s grandmother, who was the 14 year old bride of a man who, according to the grapevine, was 100 years old, to Isma’s daughter, who studies in France.
I believe the common thread in this book to be, not only the liberation of Algerian women, and living in a contradicting world of the old and the new, but linguistics. The way the book is narrated, no matter if the subject is female liberation, Algerian history, or the bond between women, the strong emphasis on languages – whether French, Arabic, Berber, Punic or Latin, is always present. Men are objectified, for example as “the enemy” (husband), or “beloved”. Algeria’s complicated relationship with France is another topic which Djebar emphasizes in her book. Also in this relationship language has a strong presence – who speaks French, who speaks Arabic, when, where, and with whom.
If you are looking for something different, are interested in the liberation of colonies, female liberation in a Muslim country, or the way language changes people and vice versa, this could be an interesting read for you.