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Biography of Yacine KATEB

Algeria > Literature : Yacine KATEB

Yacine KATEB
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Born on 06/08/1929 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Kateb Yacine (B.August 6,1929-Oct 28,1989).

Algerian novelist, poet, and playwright. Kateb wrote in French until the beginning of the 1970s, when he started to use in his théâtre de combat vernacular Arabic. Kateb's Nedjma (1956) was the first Maghribi novel to be instantly recognized as a classic, and has since acquired the status of national revolutionary novel.

Kateb Yacine was born August 6,1929 in Condé-Smendou, near Constantine, into an old, highly literate family. His father was Kateb Mohamed and mother Kateb Jasmina. Kateb was raised on tales of Arab achievement as well as on the legends of the Algerian heroes. After attending a Qur'anic school, he entered the French-language school system. In 1945 Kateb's studies at the Collège de Sétif were interrupted by his arrest, following his participation in a nationalist demonstration in Setif. The demonstration had turned to rioting and massacre of thousands people by the police and the army. Kateb was imprisoned without trial and freed a few months later. While in prison, Kateb discovered his two great loves, revolution and the poetry. One of Kateb's best-known poems"La Rose de Bilda" (1963), was about his mother, who, believing him to have been killed during the demonstration, suffered a mental breakdown.

From 1947 Kateb began to visit regularly France until he settled there permanently. At the age of seventeen, Kateb published his first book, Soliloques (1946), a collection of poems. Like many of Algerian writers-Mouloud Feraoun, Assia Djebar, Tahar Djaout-he wrote in French instead of using Algerian Arabic. In 1948 he published a long poem, 'Nedjma ou le poème ou le couteau', in which the character of Nedjma, a mysterious spirit woman, appeared for the first time. Nedjma also is the name of his cousin, whom the author loved but could not properly court.

Nedjma chaque automne reparue
Non sans m'avoir arraché
Mes larmes et mon Khandjar
Nedjma chaque automne disparue.
Et moi, pâle et terrassé
De la douce ennemie
À jamais séparé:
Les silences de mes pères poètes
Et de ma mère folle
Les sévères regards;
Les pleurs de mes aïeules amazones
Ont enfoui dans ma poitrine
Un coeur de paysan sans terre
Ou de fauve mal abattu.
Bergères taciturnes
À vos chevilles désormais je veille
Avec les doux serpents de Sfahli: mon chant est parvenu!
Bergères taciturnes,
Dites qui vous a attristées
Dites qui vous a poursuives
Qui me sépare de Nedjma?

(from 'Keblout et Nerdjma')

From 1949 to 1951 Kateb worked as a journalist, principally for Alger Républicain. He travelled through Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Soviet Central Asia. For a time he was a dockworker, but from 1952 he devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1955 Kateb was forced to leave France due to his involvement in the Algerian nationalist struggle for independence.

Kateb's most famous work, Nedjma (1957), treats the quest for a restored Algeria in a mythic manner. Its modernist technique, use of multiple narrative voices and discontinuous chronology, has influenced Francophone North African literature and writers elsewhere in the Third World. Kateb himself has admitted that William Faulkner was the most important influence on his style of writing.

Nedjma, which incorporates local legends and popular religious beliefs, is set in Bône, Algeria, under French colonial rule. Owing to the fragmented style, the plot is difficult to follow. Nedjma, a name meaning "star" in Arabic", is a beautiful, married woman, who has uncertain past. She is loved by four revolutionaries, but she comes and goes like the seasons. "Nedjma chaque automne reparue / Non sans m'avoir arraché / Mes larmes et mon Khandjar / Nedjma chaque automne disparue." The more they discover about her, the less they really know. Nedjma never changes, but the other characters pass through all the ages of life. Nedjma, portrayed in an ethereal way, embodies the attachment of traditional Algerians to their clan. Critical attention has concentrated on the novel's unusual structure. The action is not chronological-the narration has similarities with the arabesques and geometric forms of Islamic art.

Kateb took up the themes of and figure Nedjma in many poems and plays. His first play was Le cadavre encerclé (prod. 1958), a drama of colonization and alienation filled with surrealist images. In the mythical expression of the Algerian tragedy, Nedjma represented all the values of Arabic civilization trampled upon by history. Le polygone étoilé (1966), Kateb's second major prose work, introduced several characters from Nedjma. As the author himself explained, everything he has done constitutes "a long single work, always in gestation."

Inspired by Aeschylus, Rimbaud, and Brecht, whom he met in Paris, Kateb decided to break away from lyrical tradition and create a more political theatre. Among Kateb's later works is the play L'Homme aux sandales de caoutchouc (1970, The Man in Rubber Sandals), in which the Vietnamise hero is Ho Chi Minh. In small roles are such characters as Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, Pierre Loti, and Marie-Antoinette. A series of vignettes highlights the military history of Vietnam and the plight of the transient Algerian labor force in Europe. Characters are presented face to face, the French opposite the Vietnamese, the Viet-Cong opposite the Americans. Brief sequences and spoken chorus alternate. The trial of an American Everyman, called Captain Supermac, occupies the last third of the play. Kateb had visited Vietnam during the war in 1967, when American troops fought with the South Vietnamese and bombed targets in the north. The play was simultaneously produced in Algiers and Lyon.

The open warfare against French rule ended in 1962 when Algerians, voting in a national referendum, approved independence and France recognized Algeria's sovereignty. Since the early 1970s Kateb lived in his native country. Several of his plays were produced in France and Algeria, where he led a popular theatre group. In a short play, Mohammed, prends ta valise (1971), Kateb wanted to show the class complicity that exists between the French bourgeoisie and the Algerian bourgeoisie. He had remarked that the revolutionary writer "must transmit a living message, placing the public at the heart of a theater that partakes of the neverending combat opposing the proletariat to the bourgeoisie." Kateb died on October 28, 1989, in Grenoble, France.


Selected works:

  • Soliloques, 1946
  • Abdelkader et l'indépendance algérienne, 1948
  • La cadavre encerclé, 1955 (prod. 1958) - The Encircled Corpse
  • Nedjma, 1956 - (trans. by Richard Howard in 1961)
  • Le cercle des représailles, 1959 - The Circle of Reprisals (anthology of plays, includes La cadavre encerclé, Poudre d'intelligence, Les ancêrtres redoublent de férocité)
  • La femme sauvage, 1963 (play)
  • Le Polygone étoilé, 1966
  • Les ancêrtres redoublent de férocité, 1967 (play)
  • L'homme aux sandales de caoutchouc, 1970 - The Man with the Rubber Sandals (anthology of plays)
  • Mohammed prends ta valise, 1971 - Mohammed, Take Your Suitcase
  • Saout Ennisa, 1972
  • La guerre de 2000 ans, 1974 - The 2000-Year War
  • La Palestine trahie, 1972-1982
  • L'oeuvre en fragments, 1986
  • Le poète comme un boxeur: Entretiens, 1958-1989, 1994
  • Minuit passé de douze heures: écrits journalistiques, 1947-1989, 1999
  • Boucherie de espérance: Oeuvres théâtrales, 1999
  • L'Œuvre en fragments, 1999
  • Un théâtre en trois langues, 2003


Last update : 07/02/2008


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