By Tahar Djaout
Ruminator Books, 147 pp., $19
As of 1:37 p.m. on Sunday, September 23rd, "The Amazon.com 100," as good an indicator as any of what's on the mind of Americans, ranked number one in sales a book that Americans cannot even read -- yet: Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. Number three on the list, and unavailable too because it's on back order: Twin Towers: The Life of New York City's World Trade Center. Number five, again on back order: Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Number six, and, you guessed it, on order (and unreadable in another sense?): Tim Lahaye's latest apocalyptic frightfest: Desecration: Antichrist Takes the Throne (Left Behind #9). Moving down a few notches, from number 9 last week to number 17, foolishness and more on back order: Nostradamus: The Complete Prophecies; further down, down from number 21 to number 32 (because it's "incomplete"?): Nostradamus and His Prophecies. So, what book is shipping these days? Count on number 45, which moved a good 30 points (down) in the wake of September 11th: Who Moved My Cheese?
Now, scroll away, way down, all the way to an indicator of what's not up with Americans: Amazon.com's number 2,143,231. There you'll find a small but important book, and by the time you read this it may be you can read it because, as of Sunday, September 23rd, it's still on order: Tahar Djaout's The Last Summer of Reason. The indication, according to the base ranking: first and for your information, the publishing house, Ruminator Books -- small, independent, out of St. Paul, Minnesota, and, according to its mission statement, "dedicated to the publication of ... literary works that represent diverse voices, both new and forgotten ... books [that] explore and enhance the concept of community on regional and global levels." Already you can guess this much: Ruminator must be liberal-minded, internationally minded, and with that epithet "literary" and that dedication to forgotten "voices," practically un-American, which makes it these days probably barely breaking even.
Another indication: that author, Tahar Djaout. With a name like that you just gotta know he's not only not European, not Asian, not African, he's gotta be vaguely Middle Eastern, one of "them," maybe trouble. But he is African: North African, by way of postcolonial Algeria, new and/or forgotten maybe to you and me, by you and me but not unknown back in the spring of 1993, when, as an outspoken journalist, novelist, and poet, Islamic fundamentalists (or was it government henchmen?) gunned him down in his hometown of Bainem. Among Djaout's papers: a manuscript titled to fit today's headlines, The Last Summer of Reason, and a title to fit the author's very surname, "August." And among Djaout's champions, now as then: Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, who wrote the Foreword to this posthumous novel.
In the opening sentence of that Foreword and by way of introducing the author to new readers, we read: "This voice from the grave urges itself on our hearing. For let no one be in any doubt -- the life and death discourse of the twenty-first century is unambiguously the discourse of fanaticism and intolerance." And in conclusion: "The most ambitious enemies of humanity are the absolutist interpreters of the Divine Will, be they Sikhs, Hindus, Jews, Christians, Moslems, Born Agains of every religious calling."
How's that for prophecy, Nostradamus? And how's that for characterizing today's world-terrorism? "I am right, you are dead, and while we're at it, praise the Lord."
And the book itself? Call it a novel but a novel that's plotless, more a meditation -- the story of a bookstore owner named Yekker, whose wife, son, and daughter are lost to him, converts to a cause that cancels out the past, which, as with the present and so too with the future, operates under strict orders from God, man to do the necessary and murderous dirty work.
Yekker, then, alone as he travels the dangerous, familiar streets of a once-free city, comforted by flights of the imagination and by a life lived among books but dreaming, in his waning days, in this terrible, new age, dreams that are all but disallowed. Books disallowed too, except for the pre-approved and the One Book, with its call for action and violent action, if need be, against those who do not heed the Word. Children who pelt him with rocks. The tires on his car, which get slashed. Strangers who interrogate him. Yekker's store, empty, until notice comes the store will be closed. He thinks back: to wondrous days on the beach with his family, to birds in the air, to horizons of sea and air, to books ("dreaming and intelligence brought together!") that made those horizons limitless. He knows: His days are numbered. Unreal city.
"It is terrible to be watching spaces in which you have been moving around for forty years," Yekker sadly observes near the close of The Last Summer of Reason. "Only these spaces possess a reality that survives by expunging every human existence that may have stopped or settled there."
Of Yekker's unnamed city so too the ghost town unreason makes of society, of individuals -- including individuals inside two towers, built close to 40 years ago, across the sea.
Make the most of your mind. Go global. Learn from Soyinka. Do something about Djaout's rank. Be, in the space of The Last Summer of Reason, un-American. Do without the cheese.