in the light of the nine-branch candlestick

In Constantine (Algeria).

“Les Méditerranéennes”, by Emmanuel Ruben, Stock, 416 p., €22, digital €16.

Around the old building, a large garden flows onto the banks of the Loire. Inside, in the dark, each in turn and according to a ritual dating back several decades, the women of the family light one of the nine branches of Grandma Baya's candlestick for the Hanukkah celebration. And, each time, Samuel Vidouble – narrator of Mediterranean and, as readers of Saber (Stock, 2020) or The Ice Line (Rivages, 2014), Emmanuel Ruben's alter ego – surveys, by the light of a new candle, the overgrown maquis of the memories of the night lights.

These bring him successively nine breaks of“a country that no longer exists” : the Algeria of the Jews settled in Constantine. And in particular, as “girls are born with wars and boys with bridges” : the siege of Constantine, in 1836, where the city resisted the French invasion, then folded in 1870; the pogrom of August 5, 1934, where twenty-eight people were killed; them massacres of Guelmain 1945, renamed "events" in a tragic understatement; the end of Mamie Baya on the banks of the Loire, somewhere before the end of the century.

Emmanuel Ruben's remarkable incarnational writing usually painted maps, landscapes and invented places for his readers; here it is abandoning its usual geographical tropism to dig, with just as much breath and color, a historical and heritage vein. While the great and intimate story is being written in the light of the candlestick, how can one not think of Welcome Myriel and the silver candlesticks he offered to Jean Valjean in exchange for his soul (the good Hugolian bishop of Miserables wanted to give it to God)? Moreover, the classics of literature and their motifs appear everywhere in this novel, as metamorphoses and constantly open to reinvention. Like the totemic animal of Uncle Chemouel (the family writer): a friendly chameleon.

The Kahina cryptogram

Besides Victor Hugo, and very often the Mediterranean Albert Camus (that of the Wedding and of Summer1938 and 1954), the winding paths traced by Ruben's powerfully evocative phrases also revive the facial features of the Kahina. This Berber and Jewish warrior queen challenged the Umayyads in the VIIe century, during the Muslim conquest of the Maghreb. Mamie Baya assures us that she was the first owner of the menorah and that she wrote under the object the indecipherable cryptogram which each, in the family, has his own reading.

Because Jewishness – and this is what is above all at issue here – is written in The Mediterranean like an enigma, the question of a work that Emmanuel Ruben's eleven previous novels had already tried to answer. This is what Samuel Vidouble realizes, who suddenly understands "what had attracted him to the danube road or silk, in the bazaars of Istanbul or Sarajevo, the souks of Beirut or Tangier, the medinas of Casablanca or El-Jadida, the old city of Jerusalem or Bethlehem: it was a glimpse of its ancestors he was looking for everywhere without knowing it”. In The MediterraneanEmmanuel Ruben resolutely takes note of this and initiates, alongside his romantic double, an exciting turning point.

Note, by the same author, the paperback publication of “Ukrainian News”, Points, unpublished, 192 p., €8.90; and “Sabre”, Paperback, 480 p., €8.20.

Get read! Emmanuel Ruben is the guest of the round table "The land of the ancestors", with
Xavier Le Clerc, Saturday 1er October at 4 p.m., meeting space.

Read also: On the program of Make read! 2022, the Le Mans Book Fair

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