OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Francophone landscape is more than scenery

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Nabil Boudraa

The different ways in which landscape is depicted in literature composed in French is deeply revealing of the cultures that produce the literature, asserts Nabil Boudraa. Literature from France treats landscape as little more than a background for the story, whereas literature from French-speaking regions elsewhere presents landscape as inextricably intertwined with human life.

“This bond is, in fact, one of the basic conspicuous characteristics of Francophone literatures,” said Boudraa, a Research Fellow and OSU assistant professor of French and Francophone Literatures. “While landscape is simply a literary device in French novels, often reduced to mere décor for esthetic purposes, it becomes a metaphor, a trope, a narrative device, and, more importantly, a character in Francophone texts.”

Boudraa’s project, “Discursive Geographies: Writing Landscape in French and Francophone Literatures,” explores how distinct cultures conceptualize and use landscape, in particular, the congruence of landscape, history, identity and narration in the works of William Faulkner, Edouard Glissant, Kateb Yacine, Albert Camus, and Mohammed Khair-eddine.

In describing the relationship between natural space and humans—“this metaphysical rapport”—that lies at the core of his project, Boudraa uses the words bond, congruence, and harmony interchangeably. The project explores how landscape has been employed by successive French literary movements, and the ways in which this use changed during the twentieth century as the political realities of the period, including World War II, the Algerian War of Independence, and the wave of decolonization, largely politicized the role of landscape, or space, in literature.

“In the case of previously colonized cultures, some writers depict landscape as a witness to the atrocities of the past and examine the possibilities of land as a repository for a forgotten past. Landscape in that context is like a palimpsest in which history and human handiwork are almost always visible.

“In order to recreate their history and redefine their identity, these formerly colonized peoples relied, in fact, on their landscapes as a repository for their collective memory. Memory in this context substitutes for the official history, which often excludes the voice of the subordinates and falsifies their reality.”

Algerian writer and intellectual, Kateb Yacine, for instance, viewed the North African soil as imbued with the collective memory of Algeria’s ancient cities. “His depiction of the landscape is not the one you would find in Balzac’s work because descriptions of the land as mere décor are not enough.”

And though Albert Camus typically neglects indigenous populations in his writing, said Boudraa, he “relies entirely on the Algerian landscape to forge not only his own identity but also his whole conception of the Mediterranean myth.”

As a counterpoint to the Eurocentric model of history, Caribbean writer Edouard Glissant proposes the system of “histories.” He writes that history “ends where the histories of those people, once reputed to be without history, come together,” and urges “a re-examination of the past, not as an archivist’s quest for dates and facts, but as an attempt to acquire a sense of the continuous flow of time, which precisely lies dormant in the Caribbean landscape.”