Review: So Close

By Natasha Lehrer, February 18, 2010
Hélène Cixous: labyrinthine twists

Hélène Cixous: labyrinthine twists

By Hélène Cixous (Trans: Peggy Kamuf)
Polity £45 (hb); £14.99 (pb)

Dedans (1969), Hélène Cixous’s second novel, rehearsed the writer’s obsession with her father, Georges Cixous, a Sephardi Algerian Jewish doctor who died when she was a child.

Nearly 40 years after Dedans, Cixous has published Si Près, translated as So Close, which traces her hesitant decision to return to Algeria in 2005 to visit the streets and houses of her childhood, the lycées where she studied, the poetically named Jardins d’Essai, the botanical gardens of Oran and, finally, her father’s grave in Algiers’ Jewish cemetery.

The pages of So Close are soaked with tears. At its centre is Cixous’s redoubtable, 95-year-old mother, Eve, a German-born Ashkenazi Jew who practised as a midwife in Algeria until she was forced to leave the country in 1971. Twice-exiled, Eve tries to withhold permission for her daughter to return to her birthplace. But Cixous’s need is primal; her beloved friend Jacques Derrida has just died, she needs to return to Oran, his birthplace as well as hers.

Half of the book is Cixous’s ongoing conversation in a series of letters to JD, in which she maps the half-forgotten geography of her native city, recalling the places where they went to school — Derrida was seven years older than her — along with the cafés and friends of her youth. In particular, she remembers her schoolfriend Zohra Drif, one of the rare Algerians permitted to study at the Lycée, who was involved in a deadly bomb attack on a café in 1956 and sentenced to life imprisonment (she was pardoned by de Gaulle when Algeria won its independence in 1962).

The book’s devastating climax is moving beyond words

In Drif, whom she has not seen for half-a-century until they meet in Paris just before she leaves for Algiers, Cixous sees herself, half-reflected.

Cixous’s prose — impressively rendered into English by one of Derrida’s principal translators, Peggy Kamuf — is hallucinatory, richly allusive and poetic. It seems hard to follow, confusing, luring the reader up apparently blind alleys, to get lost in labyrinthine twists and turns, tripping her up with endless plays on words.

Sometimes, the almost wanton meanderings of her writing can become a little tedious, but then a moment of sly humour tugs you back into her world, pulls you headlong towards an epiphany, into a great swell of emotion, a rush of memories, sensations, impressions, like the crescendo of a symphony, whose effect is all the more powerful because it cannot be explained or described. The devastating climax of the book, where Cixous eventually finds her father’s grave in the cemetery in Oran, is moving beyond words.

Helene Cixous will discuss “Judeities” with Nicholas Royle at Jewish Book Week on March 2 at 8.30pm. Natasha Lehrer is a writer living in Paris

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011