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Kateb Yacine (1929-1989)


Algerian novelist, poet, and playwright. Kateb wrote in French until the beginning of the 1970s, when he began to use in his théâtre de combat vernacular Arabic. Kateb's Nedjma (1956) was the first Maghribi novel to be instantly recognized as a classic, and has since acquired the status of national revolutionary novel.

Kateb Yacine was born in Condé-Smendou, near Constantine, into an old, highly literate family. His father was Kateb Mohamed and mother Kateb Jasmina. (Kateb is the writer's last name, Yacine his first.) He was raised on tales of Arab achievement as well as on the legends of the Algerian heroes. After attending a Qur'anic school, he entered the French-language school system. In 1945 Kateb's studies at the Collège de Sétif were interrupted by his arrest, following his participation in a nationalist demonstration in Setif. The demonstration had turned to rioting and massacre of thousands people by the police and the army. Kateb was imprisoned without trial and freed a few months later. While in prison, Kateb discovered his two great loves, revolution and the poetry. One of Kateb's best-known poems, 'La rose de Blida' (1963), was about his mother, who, believing him to have been killed during the demonstration, suffered a mental breakdown.

From 1947 Kateb began to visit regularly France until he settled there permanently. At the age of seventeen, Kateb published his first book, Soliloques (1946), a collection of poems. Like many of Algerian writers – Mouloud Feraoun, Assia Djebar, Tahar Djaout – he wrote in French instead of using Algerian Arabic. In 1948 he published a long poem, 'Nedjma ou le poème ou le couteau', in which the character of Nedjma, a mysterious spirit woman, appeared for the first time. Nedjma also is the name of his cousin, whom the author loved but could not properly court.

Nedjma chaque automne reparue
Non sans m'avoir arraché
Mes larmes et mon Khandjar
Nedjma chaque automne disparue.
Et moi, pâle et terrassé
De la douce ennemie
À jamais séparé:
Les silences de mes pères poètes
Et de ma mère folle
Les sévères regards;
Les pleurs de mes aïeules amazones
Ont enfoui dans ma poitrine
Un coeur de paysan sans terre
Ou de fauve mal abattu.
Bergères taciturnes
À vos chevilles désormais je veille
Avec les doux serpents de Sfahli: mon chant est parvenu!
Bergères taciturnes,
Dites qui vous a attristées
Dites qui vous a poursuives
Qui me sépare de Nedjma?

(from 'Keblout et Nerdjma')

From 1949 to 1951 Kateb worked as a journalist, principally for the Communist newspaper Alger Républicain, where Mohammed Dib was his fellow journalist. He travelled through Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Soviet Central Asia. For a time he was a dockworker, but from 1952 he devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1955 Kateb was forced to leave France due to his involvement in the Algerian nationalist struggle for independence.

Kateb's most famous work, Nedjma (1957), treats the quest for a restored Algeria in a mythic manner. Its modernist technique, use of multiple narrative voices and discontinuous chronology, has influenced Francophone North African literature and writers elsewhere in the Third World. Kateb himself has admitted that William Faulkner was the most important influence on his style of writing. And like Faulkner with his Yoknapatawpha County, Kateb had his own "little postage stamp of native soil," the eastern part of Algeria.

Nedjma, which incorporates local legends and popular religious beliefs, is set in Bône, Algeria, under French colonial rule. Owing to the fragmented style, the plot is difficult to follow. Nedjma, a name meaning "star" in Arabic," is a beautiful, married woman, who has uncertain past. She is loved by four revolutionaries, but she comes and goes like the seasons. "Nedjma chaque automne reparue / Non sans m'avoir arraché / Mes larmes et mon Khandjar / Nedjma chaque automne disparue." The more they discover about her, the less they really know. Nedjma never changes, but the other characters pass through all the ages of life. Noteworthy, as a character she participates in the action much less than one would expect. Direct quotations of her speech and thought totals less than two pages. Nedjma, portrayed in an ethereal way, embodies the attachment of traditional Algerians to their clan. Critical attention has concentrated on the novel's unusual structure. The action is not chronological - the narration has similarities with the arabesques and geometric forms of Islamic art.

Kateb took up the themes of and figure Nedjma in many poems and plays; this female character was throughout his life the focus of his creative vision. His first play was Le cadavre encerclé (prod. 1958, The encircled corpse), a drama of colonization and alienation filled with surrealist images. In the mythical expression of the Algerian tragedy, Nedjma represented all the values of Arabic civilization trampled upon by history. Le polygone étoilé (1966), Kateb's second major prose work, introduced several characters from Nedjma. As the author himself explained, everything he has done constitutes "a long single work, always in gestation."

Inspired by Aeschylus, Rimbaud, and Brecht, whom he met in Paris, Kateb decided to break away from lyrical tradition and create a more political theatre. Among Kateb's later works is the play L'Homme aux sandales de caoutchouc (1970, The man in rubber sandals). Its first scenes he had sketched out in 1949, while working as a journalist in Algiers and years before the French defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, which Kateb once characterized as "both October and Stalingrad: a revolution of global proportion and an irresistible call to the wretched of the Earth." The Vietnamise hero is Ho Chi Minh. In small roles are such characters as Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, Pierre Loti, and Marie-Antoinette. A series of vignettes highlights the military history of Vietnam and the plight of the transient Algerian labor force in Europe. Characters are presented face to face, the French opposite the Vietnamese, the Viet-Cong opposite the Americans. Brief sequences and spoken chorus alternate. The trial of an American Everyman, called Captain Supermac, occupies the last third of the play. Kateb had visited Vietnam during the war in 1967, when American troops fought with the South Vietnamese and bombed targets in the north. The play was simultaneously produced in Algiers and Lyon.

The open warfare against French rule ended in 1962 when Algerians, voting in a national referendum, approved independence and France recognized Algeria's sovereignty. Since the early 1970s Kateb lived in his native country. He no longer wrote in French but in Algerian Arabic. Several of his dramatic works were produced in France and Algeria, where he led a popular theatre group, Action Culturelle des Travailleurs (Workers' Cultural Action or ACT). It toured in France and had a great success among the émigré audiences.

Kateb's Mohammed, prends ta valise (1971, Mohammed, take your suitcase), dealing with Algerian immigration, was performed in factories and other industries, and reached 70000 people in five months. "I gave myself completely to the play with no experience of directing," Kateb said in an interview. In this work Kateb wanted to show the class complicity that exists between the French bourgeoisie and the Algerian bourgeoisie. He had remarked that the revolutionary writer "must transmit a living message, placing the public at the heart of a theater that partakes of the neverending combat opposing the proletariat to the bourgeoisie." Kateb died on October 28, 1989, in Grenoble, France. At the time of his death, he was revising the first version of ot the play Le bourgeois sans-culotte ou le spectre du parc Monceau (Robespierre the sansculotte, or the ghost of Parc Monceau), commissioned for the bicentennial of the French revolution. It was first performed at the Avignon festival in 1988. With a few exceptions, Kateb's works are unavailable in English. Richard Howard's translation of Nedjma came out in 1961, and the Ubu Repertory Theater series of New York published in 1985 Stephen J. Vogel's translation of Intelligence Powder (La poudre d'intelligence).

For further reading: Revolution at the Crossroads: Street Theater and the Politics of Radical Democracy in India and in Algeria by Neil Doshi (2009); The Politics and Aesthetics of Kateb Yacine: From Francophone Literature to Popular Theatre in Algeria and Outside by Kamal Salhi (1999); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 2. ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Bibliographie Kateb Yacine, ed. by Charles Bonn (1997); Counterhegemonic Discourse from the Maghreb: The Poetics of Kateb's Fiction by Bernard Aresu (1993); Kateb Yacine: "Nedjma" by Charles Bonn (1990); L'étoile d'araignée by Kristine Aurbakken (1986); "Nedjma" de Kateb Yacine by Marc Gontard (1985); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Vineta Colby (1985); Recherches sur la littérature maghrébine de langue française by Jacqueline Aresu (1982); Littérature maghrébine de langue française by J. Déjeux (1973); The French New Novel by L. Le Sage (1962).  Note: The name "Kateb" means "writer" in Arabic. Maghribi novel: Northern African novel. The genre is comparatively new to the Arab world. Algerians form the largest group of Maghribis writing in French. Moroccan postmodernist novelists, writing in Arabic, have paved way for experimental fiction. Note: Kateb Yacine's birtdate in some sources: August 26, 1929.

Selected works:

  • Soliloques, 1946
  • Abdelkader et l'indépendance algérienne, 1948
  • La cadavre encerclé, 1955 (The encircled corpse, play; prod. Brussels, 1958, by Jean-Marie Serreau)
  • Nedjma, 1956
    - Nedjma (translated by Richard Howard, 1961)
  • Le cercle des représailles, 1959 (The circle of reprisals, anthology of plays, includes La cadavre encerclé, Poudre d'intelligence, Les ancêrtres redoublent de férocité)
  • La femme sauvage, 1963 (play)
  • Leluth et la valise, 1963 (The lute and the suitcase; play)
  • Nouvelles aventures de Nuage de Fumée, 1964 (Puff of Smoke's new adventures; play)
  • Le Polygone étoilé, 1966
  • Les ancêrtres redoublent de férocité, 1967 (The ancestors redouble in ferocity; play)
  • La Poudre d’intelligence, 1968
    - Intelligence Powder (play; translated from the French by Stephen J. Vogel, 1985)
  • L'homme aux sandales de caoutchouc: théâtre, 1970 (The man with the rubber sandals;  play)
  • Mohammed prends ta valise, 1971 (Mohammed, take your suitcase; play)
  • Saout Ennisa, 1972
  • La Palestine trahie, 1972-1982 (Palestine betrayed; play)
  • La guerre de deux mille ans, 1974 (The two thousand years' war,  play)
  • La Kahina, 1985 (The Kahina, play)
  • L'Œuvre en fragments, 1986 (edited by Jacqueline Arnaud)
  • Le bourgeois sans-culotte ou le spectre du parc Monceau, 1988 (Robespierre the sansculotte, or the ghost of Parc Monceau, play)
  • Le poète comme un boxeur: Entretiens, 1958-1989, 1994 (edited by Gilles Carpentier)
  • Minuit passé de douze heures: écrits journalistiques, 1947-1989, 1999 (edited by Amazigh Kateb)
  • Boucherie de espérance: Oeuvres théâtrales, 1999 (plays, edited by Chergui)
  • Un théâtre en trois langues, 2003

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