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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Last Summer of Reason

Tahar Djaout

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To purchase The Last Summer of Reason

Title: The Last Summer of Reason
Author: Tahar Djaout
Genre: Novel
Written: (1999) (Eng. 2001)
Length: 153 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Last Summer of Reason - US
The Last Summer of Reason - UK
The Last Summer of Reason - Canada
Le dernier été de la raison - Canada
Le dernier été de la raison - France
  • French title: Le dernier été de la raison
  • Translated by Marjolijn de Jager
  • Le dernier été de la raison was first published posthumously, in 1999
  • With a Foreword by Wole Soyinka
  • "A percentage of the proceeds from this book will go to American Booksellers for the Freedom of Expression, 'the bookseller's voice in the fight against censorship.' " Presumably they mean the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. Personally we'd prefer they just lowered the cover price and let consumers decide who to donate their money to. Note also that they don't provide even a ballpark figure regarding the percentage that will go to ABFFE -- what is it ? ninety percent ? or point zero zero one percent ? Note also that while ABFFE seems a reputable non-profit doing fine work their site does not offer a privacy policy (unacceptable, especially since they ask for e-mail addresses) and there is no information about how the monies received are spent (i.e. how much goes to foundation salaries, how much is spent on actual ABFFE activities) -- also unacceptable.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : powerful, dreamy fable of increasingly oppressive times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 18/11/2001 S. Salter Reynolds
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/12/2001 Adam Shatz
San Francisco Chronicle C 21/10/2001 Andrew Roe
USA Today . 4/10/2001 Bob Minzesheimer
World Lit. Today . Spring/2000 Jean-Marie Volet

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Last Summer of Reason, like Czeslaw Milosz's nonfiction work, The Captive Mind, describes the stages of nostalgia, paranoia and detachment that a tyrannical regime can inflict on the soul of the artist." - Susan Salter Reynolds, The Los Angeles Times

  • "An elegiac ode to literature and a furious protest against intolerance, The Last Summer of Reason is ultimately less successful as a novel than as a polemic." - Adam Shatz, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Djaout's nameless seaside city and the oppression that reigns there, as well as his protagonist, never rise above their overt symbolism, leaving readers with one dimension instead of many." - Andrew Roe, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Djaout's novel is not about Islam or terrorism, at least the kind in the news. It's a cautionary fable about an absolutist mind-set that brooks no dissent, views independent ideas and books as dangerous, and rules in the name of a vengeful, unforgiving God. (...) There's not much of a plot, but lots of poetic images." - Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today

  • "Le dernier été is an uncompromising attack on the evil forces that have brought his country to its knees, and it should be read in the context of Algeria's devastating religious fundamentalism (.....) Djaout's novel is unmistakably rooted in Algerian history, but the story does not finish there. It is also a kind of parable that allows for a reading which goes beyond the Algerian experience. (...) (D)efinitely a book to read and to buy for your library." - Jean-Marie Volet, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Algerian author and journalist Tahar Djaout is, unfortunately, best known for having gotten himself killed (apparently by Islamic fundamentalists). In fact, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was a very active -- and probably the leading -- figure in what remained of Algeria's once vibrant literary culture. He published numerous works of fiction and poetry, and also worked as a journalist -- and that in an increasingly hostile (and ultimately deadly) climate. Despite his international renown (martyrdom helped, but he had already reached an audience -- at least in the French-speaking world -- before his death), The Last Summer of Reason is, apparently, his first work to be translated into English, nearly a decade after his death.
       The posthumously published novel is an appropriate introduction to his work and life. It tells the story of a bookseller, Boualem Yekker. He lives in a country obviously modeled on Algeria. Like Algeria in the early 1990s, the country around him is obviously going to the dogs. Or, more accurately (and even worse), to the religious fundamentalists. It was once a Republic; now it is a "Community in the Faith". V.B.s ("Vigilant Brothers") make sure that everyone is following their interpretation of the holy rules that now govern the land. Self-styled "bands of enlightened redeemers" follow suit. Soon even the little kids get into the act, throwing stones at those who aren't conforming to the constricting, intolerant mould ordained by the local high-priests.
       The world around the bookseller is shrinking, and grinding to a halt. It is a summer when the future hangs in the balance -- though the scales already have almost completely tipped to the side of the religious nuts. Still: it "was the summer of attacks, but also of defiance." There is still some hope, some freedom, some space. But, Yekker realizes, not for long:

     Boualem Yekker calls this season the last summer of reason. Sometimes, the last summer of history. Indeed, thereafter the country went freewheeling, leaving history behind.
       At first Yekker is only on the periphery of danger. He is "neither elegant nor talented", which puts him out of the spotlight: "what is persecuted above all, and more than people's opinions, is their ability to create and propagate beauty." Still, Yekker is a purveyor of these outrageous idea- and beauty-filled objects known as books, so he doesn't fit in too well in this new, retrograde society.
       Business isn't exactly booming, of course. Touchingly Djaout describes Yekker's brief moments of hope when he sees people gazing in the shop window. But there is hardly a market for the sorts of books he has any longer. One acquaintance, Ali Elbouliga, still comes to while away time there. Otherwise, Yekker remains largely alone in his bookish world -- and the books ultimately prove almost as much a burden as a solace.
       Family life also gets more complicated when his daughter turns on him. "The illness of fanaticism had attacked her." She is transformed, "covered with superior certainties".
       Yekker tries to continue to live his life in the manner he is accustomed to, but there is no escape from the encroaching fanaticism. It crushes all opposition. Any semblance of rationality is done away with. Even weather forecasts are banned, as if these called some all-mighty's grand plan (and his power) into question. (What a pathetic god it must be they're protecting, if he can be threatened by mortals' barely educated guesses at tomorrow's weather; doesn't the fact that the meteorologists barely ever get it right instead reinforce the idea of divine omnipotence ?)
       Imagination is dulled, "the world has become aphasic, opaque, and sullen; it is wearing mourning clothes." Books "constitute the safest refuge against this world of horror" all around Yekker, but the books are also a danger to him. Eventually they must make place for "the one, the irremovable Book of resigned certainty."
       The threats against Yekker mount. What is, at first, almost harmless child's play intensifies to very real danger. Might conquers right:
They have understood the danger in words, all the words they cannot manage to domesticate and anesthetize. For words, put end to end, bring doubt and change. Words above all must not conceive of the utopia of another form of truth, of unsuspected paths, of another place of thought.
       The downward spiral of a nation losing itself in a limiting ideology continues. Djaout allows for some hope, at least wondering about the future at the end of his novel. But that is the fiction. The murder of Djaout: that is how the story ends.
       The Last Summer of Reason is a very sad book. Djaout's portrayal of a country going to ruin is almost gentle, his attacks circumspect. Reason has almost been done away with. Yekker faces it almost uncomprehendingly: how does one battle the forces of irrationality ? He does stand up, in his own way against them, but it is not an even battle. In the name of their god the fanatics are unwilling to tolerate other opinions, other ideas, other ways of living. And they are willing to resort to the most reprehensible and cowardly tactics and actions to silence those they believe to be their enemies.
       It is a sad world Djaout describes -- all the more so because it is, in too many places, much like the real world. In presenting this world through Yekker's frustrated experiences Djaout adopts the proper tone, avoiding sounding too self-righteous, his condemnation sad and resigned more than anything else. The style gets a bit elegiac and the translation occasionally goes a bit off kilter: "Like a sagacious cat, the wind is playing with papers and dead leaves whirling them around where they are." But on the whole it reads quite well.
       There have been many books like The Last Summer of Reason -- though most from the past few decades have dealt with similar issues under European totalitarian regimes. Djaout's is certainly worthwhile. It is a fine, moving literary work, though lacking some of the polish and punch of other examples of the genre. It is, of course, also all the more poignant because the reader knows what happened to Djaout, an author who paid the ultimate price for his art and his convictions.

       This volume also comes with a Foreword by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Soyinka makes some valid and interesting points, expressed (as usual) quite nicely, but he goes for the big picture, rather than focussing specifically on Djaout and his work. Given how few people are familiar with Djaout a few more pages about the author might have been preferable.

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Reviews: Other books about Tahar Djaout under review: Other books involving Tahar Djaout under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Index of books relating to Africa
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Algerian author and journalist Tahar Djaout, born in 1954, was killed in 1993.

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