'Discretion' review: an Algerian matriarch's poetic tale of displacement

Faiza Guene’s latest book, which comes out on Tuesday, commemorates the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s War of Independence

Algerian-French author Faiza Guene has released her latest novel, 'Discretion'. Photo: Faiza Guene
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“Ah la la, Alhumdullilah,” says Yamina, aged 70, as she kicks her burkini-covered legs while in a swimming pool for the first time.

It was “a sweet taste of childhood for someone who never really experienced childhood”, Faiza Guene writes.

And while this scene from a family holiday in south-west France might take place on the last few pages of Guene’s book, Discretion, it reflects so many of the novel’s themes: from the constant push-and-pull of Algerian and French identities, to the reality that women of wartime generations are forced to grow up faster than most.

Guene was born in Paris to Algerian parents, and at the age of 19, published her first novel, Kiffe Kiffe Demain, which has been translated in more than 30 languages.

It was translated to English by Sarah Ardizzone, who has translated Guene’s other novels: Dreams from the Endz, Bar Balto, Men Don’t Cry and, now, Discretion.

Guene’s latest work centres on the story of an Algerian family in France, anchored by Yamina, a matriarch who left Algeria, moving to Morocco and then France following an arranged marriage.

Now, she is the mother of four children, who readers become intimately acquainted with as Guene frequently switches between characters’ perspectives while framing her story.

'Discretion' by Faiza Guene.

She writes her novel like one might narrate a film, with a poetic prose that reveals detailed glimpses into the generations of the Taleb family, hardened and shaped by war, immigration and racism.

“I tried through the intimate point of view of a family, to give keys of comprehension to the descendants of colonial history,” Guene tells The National.

She reveals that her family history played a part in inspiring parts of Discretion.

“I started an intimate investigation around the story of my mother from her childhood in the middle of the Algerian war until her exile in France. It became urgent to capture her memory, but by the tool of fiction,” she says.

“We are terribly lacking in storytelling about women like Yamina’s character. They are often forgotten in history but also in fiction. Or they are caricatured.

“My deep desire when I’ve started this novel was to give a voice to this woman; I wanted my readers to change their way of seeing this woman.”

It is by naming this trauma and by exploring this buried anger, by coming out of the silence that we take the path to peace
Faiza Guene, author

Females from patriarchal cultures, after all, bear much of the brunt of colonialism and immigration.

“Women die so many deaths before the final one,” Guene writes. “Women are murdered by their own world, a thousand times over. Yet they still rise again, morning after morning.”

Although Yamina was uprooted from her home three times, Guene notes, “the breast of this woman is devoid of any bitterness, which is in the order of a miracle when you think about it”.

The novel’s title, Discretion, is telling on many levels, signifying how both women and immigrants are raised to shoulder their burdens in silence.

“Discretion is a concept that is inscribed in us when we have an experience of uprooting: stay invisible to survive,” Guene says. “The resulting discretion becomes yourself, it becomes your way of life and it is transmitted to your children.”

We see this transference of discretion with Yamina’s daughter Malika, who works at a government registry office.

When an Arab man appears in distress, she switches to her mother tongue to help him, but is then reprimanded for her “conduct”. The event becomes a family lunchtime discussion, where Yamina urges her daughter to remain “discreet”.

Despite the motivations that drive immigrants to restart their lives in a new country, often to escape perils of war and poverty, they often end up raising “overburdened” children without realising it, and this theme is central to Discretion.

Numerous clashes between one’s conflicting identities can occur when one’s family is transposed from the East to the West, and Guene highlights the resulting chasm that widens between parents and children.

Yamina’s son Omar, for instance, who grows up to be an Uber driver, plays a PlayStation game ironically hunting down Arab terrorists.

His father, who is past 80, never had the opportunity to “play” anything, and can’t comprehend “this generation of prolonged childhood, reduced responsibilities and limited courage”.

Yamina and her husband were part of the “survival generation” while their children will form the “well-being generation”, Guene writes.

The purpose of her work, however, is not merely to point out differences between generations, but to build a bridge between them, particularly so that children of immigrants can understand their parents’ pasts, and the parts of those histories that they’ve inherited.

Themes of dispossession and exile are essential ways of understanding our current societies. This concerns everyone

While her children expect her to be less complacent, Yamina’s refusal to be angry at the world is, in itself, an act of resistance.

But Guene points out that anger, even when buried, cannot simply disappear.

“Anger is passed on, without anyone realising it,” she writes. She emphasises this when Yamina’s daughter Hannah sees a therapist, who explains that she is experiencing generational trauma — that she has “inherited” the violent and humiliating history of her family.

“In my eyes, it is by naming this trauma and by exploring this buried anger, by coming out of the silence that we take the path to peace,” Guene says.

“Themes of dispossession and exile are essential ways of understanding our current societies. This concerns everyone — the heirs of this story must be able to identify to these stories, to feel understood.”

Discretion is released by Saqi Books on Tuesday, May 31, in a year that marks the 60th anniversary of Algeria’s War of Independence.

“This is an opportunity to pay particular attention to certain aspects of Franco-Algerian history,” Guene says.

“And it’s an opportunity to reclaim these stories, to tell them through the unofficial prism, through the modest people whose words have never been collected.”

Updated: May 31, 2022, 8:43 AM