October 2002

Jen Crispin

nonfiction

The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout

Tahar Djaout was assassinated for writing books like The Last Summer of Reason. His words are disconcerting, discomforting, and it's not only the fundamentalist Islamic groups (who have been attributed the responsibility for his death) who should be uneasy, it should be all of us. This book is an elegant argument against the complacency of political correctness that excuses brutal repression in the name of cultural differences. As recent events have all too clearly illustrated, hate allowed to fester anywhere will eventually spill out of those boundaries we thought had contained it.

It's all too easy to let any discussion of this book spill over into politics, because this book is more than a novel. Hopefully someday people will be able to read this book purely for its simple poetic prose, appreciate it just for its finely crafted story. Right now, I find it hard to read it in any other way than as a window into the political climate of our times.

As such The Last Summer of Reason is brilliant and chilling. As I was reading it I kept trying to compare it to dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World in my head, but the comparisons didn't quite fit because this is not quite a dystopian novel. Instead of immersing the reader in a futuristic world in which personal freedoms are a thing of the past, it starts fairly innocuously, in a country run by religious fundamentalists, but in which one can still buy and sell controversial books, people could still resist.

What is fascinating about this book is the slow progression of intolerance. What is terrifying about this book is how rarely it is the authorities who enforce the new codes of behavior, but fellow citizens. In the beginning, it is the children, easily molded, who shame their parents into belief. Once the children have converted their parents, they start in on the neighborhood. Suddenly they are the authorities, and they throw rocks and break windows in order to punish those not living up to the image of the perfectly devout. Finally the adults join in, monitoring the behavior of their families, their neighbors, complete strangers.

It is a horrifying thing to watch, a horrifying thing to imagine happening to you, to people you love. It is terrifying to think that this base intolerance must lie in the hearts of all of us, sleeping, waiting for the right time to come out. Somewhere deep inside, are we all the gestapo? Do we all long to enforce our own moral codes onto others? Given someone else's moral codes, would we all just as happily press those onto everyone we know? How long would you resist, if your freedoms were being taken away millimeter by millimeter? How hard would you struggle, if they were not your freedoms being taken away, but your neighbor's? your enemy's?

The Last Summer of Reason is a great book not because it answers such big questions, but because it provokes them. This is a book of our times, and it is later than you think.

The Last Summer of Reason
Tahar Djaout
Ruminator Books
ISBN 1886913501