Auto-destruction or auto-reproduction?

Post/colonial legacies of violence in Yasmina Khadra’s À quoi rêvent les loups

Francosphères (2019), 8, (1), 57–72.


This article addresses the literary aesthetics of extreme violence in Yasmina Khadra’s A quoi rêvent les loups. In Khadra’s descriptions of violence a flood of words erupt which graphically detail the horrors of the war in Algeria in the 1990s. Literary criticism on African literary violence has largely focused on the notions of the ‘unspeakability’ or ‘unrepresentability’ of violence in Africa. Khadra’s linguistic excess, though, by its very nature writes against these notions through a surplus of representability in order to counter the idea that violence has become endemic and banal in Africa. Khadra’s writing further shows that the war’s carnage is and must be representable in order to confront an historical legacy of violence which is flowing back and forth in time to underscore the (anti-)colonial roots of violence in postcolonial Algeria.

Cet article traite de l’esthétique littéraire de la violence extrême dans le roman A quoi rêvent les loups de Yasmina Khadra. Les descriptions de la violence de Khadra inonde le récit de détails choquants des horreurs de la guerre des années 1990 en Algérie. La critique littéraire qui traite de la violence littéraire africaine se concentre, jusqu’ici, principalement sur les idées de l’‘indicible’ ou de la ‘non-représentabilité’. A l’inverse, l’excès langagier chez Khadra présente une écriture qui défie ces idées par un surcroît de ‘représentabilité’, contrant l’idée reçue que la violence est endémique et banale en Afrique. L’écriture de Khadra souligne que le carnage de la guerre est et doit être représentable pour confronter un héritage historique de la violence qui coulent à travers le temps, afin que les origines (anti-)coloniales de la violence dans l’Algérie postcoloniale soient mises en relief.

Auto-destruction or auto-reproduction?

Post/colonial legacies of violence in Yasmina Khadra’s À quoi rêvent les loups


This article addresses the literary aesthetics of extreme violence in Yasmina Khadra’s A quoi rêvent les loups. In Khadra’s descriptions of violence a flood of words erupt which graphically detail the horrors of the war in Algeria in the 1990s. Literary criticism on African literary violence has largely focused on the notions of the ‘unspeakability’ or ‘unrepresentability’ of violence in Africa. Khadra’s linguistic excess, though, by its very nature writes against these notions through a surplus of representability in order to counter the idea that violence has become endemic and banal in Africa. Khadra’s writing further shows that the war’s carnage is and must be representable in order to confront an historical legacy of violence which is flowing back and forth in time to underscore the (anti-)colonial roots of violence in postcolonial Algeria.

Cet article traite de l’esthétique littéraire de la violence extrême dans le roman A quoi rêvent les loups de Yasmina Khadra. Les descriptions de la violence de Khadra inonde le récit de détails choquants des horreurs de la guerre des années 1990 en Algérie. La critique littéraire qui traite de la violence littéraire africaine se concentre, jusqu’ici, principalement sur les idées de l’‘indicible’ ou de la ‘non-représentabilité’. A l’inverse, l’excès langagier chez Khadra présente une écriture qui défie ces idées par un surcroît de ‘représentabilité’, contrant l’idée reçue que la violence est endémique et banale en Afrique. L’écriture de Khadra souligne que le carnage de la guerre est et doit être représentable pour confronter un héritage historique de la violence qui coulent à travers le temps, afin que les origines (anti-)coloniales de la violence dans l’Algérie postcoloniale soient mises en relief.

In 1990s Algeria, the Front islamique du salut (FIS) challenged Algeria’s Front de libération nationale (FLN) one-party system. When the FIS was declared illegal, political Islamists and the military began to wage war. The FIS gradually fractured into different branches, the most brutal – and therefore most cited – being the Groupe islamique armé (GIA). Unlike the violence of the Algerian War of Independence, which, the FLN maintained at the time, was a necessary means to put an end to colonial violence, the violence of the décennie noire has been framed largely as armed Islamism.1 Towards the end of this dark period, in 1999, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was elected president on the back of a campaign which promised amnesty for the Islamists and their violence in order to bring the war to an end. Although the majority of the Algerian population supported the amnesty measures, a number of intellectuals problematized the issue of amnesty. As James Le Sueur, quoting novelist Malika Mokeddem, writes, ‘The problem is that law came [in 2005] without any judgment […] without ever putting into words the violence that the Algerians suffered’.2 Yasmina Khadra’s 1999 novel À quoi rêvent les loups – released the same year as President Bouteflika’s election – tells the story of Nafa Walid and his recruitment into Islamic activism.3 The novel depicts Nafa’s transition from someone who cannot stand the sight of a dead body to a nonviolent member in the FIS, only to end up a leader in the GIA, where he commits the most brutal acts of violence. Khadra’s novel contains a surplus of carnage in the form of graphic, explicit, gory, obscene, and vulgar depictions of mutilations and mutations on the human body. In a country where the government offered amnesty, effectively erasing the violent acts, Khadra’s language first and foremost insists upon the existence of this violence. But more than just a reminder of the existence of the war’s massacres, infanticides, kidnappings, and rape, Khadra’s depictions of extreme violence show that contemporary forms of Algerian violence are paradoxically both auto-destructive and auto-reproductive.

Moreover, Khadra’s almost incessant carnage highlights the ways in which the body politic of 1990s Algeria reproduces and perverts the anti-/colonial violence from the War of Independence. The slash here – as opposed to the hyphen – in both anti-/ and post/colonial represents a distinction from, yet proximity to and overlap with the colonial and the after or counter to it.4 Consequently, A quoi rêvent les loups, reminiscent of Achille Mbembe’s claims in On the Postcolony, unmasks a complicity between colonial powers, anti-colonial struggles, and postcolonial African societies and the perpetuation of inescapable cycles of violence.5 The excess of brutality in Khadra’s work thus creates a rupture in time and space, in which the roots of violence can be found in colonial times and spaces but which are also reproduced and perverted in contemporary francophone societies. Just as Mbembe speaks of time in Africa as an ‘entanglement’ and ‘interlocking of presents, pasts, and futures’,6 this violence breaks down the boundaries, the dams, between the lines of what qualifies as colonial, anticolonial, postcolonial, and neocolonial violence(s), so that they flow into and contaminate each other; time is indeed on the move, it flows back and forth as if it were a tide.

Through a reading of Frantz Fanon’s work on violence in Les Damnés de la terre (1961), this article contends that À quoi rêvent les loups serves to highlight the connection between the décennie noire and the War of Independence.7 The Islamist activist groups of the décennie noire inscribe themselves in the legacy of the FLN who claimed, as Fanon notes, that the only way to defeat French colonial violence was through violence. However, Fanon warns of the dangers of this ‘totalising violence’, as something that will consume its perpetrators until they have destroyed themselves through their adherence to a cycle of violence/counter-violence. Khadra’s writing shows that the Islamists inscribe themselves in a similar logic to that of Fanon; they have unfortunately failed to heed Fanon’s warnings and are therefore further along the path towards self-destruction. The forms of extreme violence in À quoi rêvent les loups become a prism through which former colonized subjects – and the reader – are forced to confront the legacies of violence and how these bodies of neo/post/colonial violence continue to re-generate.

Infanticide: Killing the future

A quoi rêvent les loups opens with a sort of prologue in which Khadra flashes back and forward several times in the novel’s chronological diegesis: it begins with a brutal act of infanticide committed by the novel’s protagonist with no context, framework, or warning whatsoever. Nafa’s first-person narrative voice looks back on the savagery of his act with shock, perhaps regret:

Pourquoi l’archange Gabriel n’a-t-il pas retenu mon bras lorsque je m’apprêtais à trancher la gorge de ce bébé brûlant de fièvre? Pourtant, de toutes mes forces, j’ai cru que jamais ma lame n’oserait effleurer ce cou frêle, à peine plus gros qu’un poignet de mioche. (p. 11)

Nafa’s act recalls both Quranic and Biblical accounts of Abraham’s sacrifice but twists them as no miraculous substitution happens for Nafa and the human sacrifice was performed. The precision of the vocabulary and amplification of contact – slicing the throat, grazing the neck – create a troubling, accurate image of the spilled blood and resultant carnage – not mentioned yet nevertheless present – as the blade pierces the baby’s tiny neck. Where in the rest of the novel Khadra uses the verb égorger, here he describes the act more painstakingly through his use of trancher – which connotes decapitation, unlike the former. This not only draws out the violence but makes the image of the savage act even more gruesome and gut-wrenching. Khadra depicts a heinous act in some of the most disturbing terms to emphasize just how extreme, how out-of-the-ordinary these horrors are.

The opening passage, just two lines, is a preamble to a later scene, diegetically placed near the novel’s end, in which Khadra details the massacre which ends with brutal infanticide perpetrated by Nafa. In this much longer, bloodier scene, the explicit, varied prose makes manifest the most grisly, extraordinary horror of the massacre:

Les premiers coups de hache leur fracassèrent le crane […] Le sabre cognait, la hache pulvérisait, le couteau tranchait […]. Les larmes giclaient plus haut que le sang […] Les bourreaux massacraient sans peine et sans merci […] Bientôt les cadavres s’entassèrent dans les patios, bientôt le sang rougit les flaques de pluie. Et Nafa frappait, frappait, frappait; il n’entendait que sa rage battre à ses tempes ne voyait que l’épouvante des visages torturés. Pris dans un tourbillon de cris et de fureur, il avait totalement perdu la raison.

Lorsque je suis revenu à moi, c’était trop tard. Le miracle n’avait pas eu lieu. Aucun archange n’avait retenu ma main […] J’étais là, soudain dégrisé, un bébé ensanglanté entre les mains. J’avais du sang jusque dans les yeux. (pp. 262–63)

This brutal passage is one of the novel’s most terrifying and powerful scenes, due as much to its visual language (coups de hache, se ruèrent, l’épouvante, tourbillon, retenu ma main, ensanglanté) as to its use of sound and onomatopoeia (fracassèrent, cognait, pulvérisait, tranchait, cris). One can almost hear the body parts being cut, ripped, beaten, smashed to pieces so that the reader cannot escape the horror of these massacres – which occurred much like Khadra describes them – but must face the violence, confront it in all of its gruesome precision. Here, Khadra takes the novel’s first words to excess in the number and variety of nouns and verbs which describe the slaughter. While the novel switches several times from first- to third-person narration in between chapters, the change in voice in this passage between two subsequent paragraphs suggests that Nafa was not himself and almost had to be outside of himself in order to commit such excessively grisly acts. Further, whereas the opening lines to which this passage alludes do not explicitly mention blood, Khadra opens the floodgates as it were to a surplus of gore in this scene. In this excess, the text confronts this particular brutality even more violently but also opens a space for the anti-/colonial violence of the 1950s–1960s – in which both the French army and the FLN also slit the throats of enemies – to merge with this distorted extreme (infanticidal) form of post(anti-)colonial violence. Through this rupture in time, the novel thus evokes a society that is literally killing itself, its offspring, and therefore its own future, before it even has a chance to develop.

African literary violence: An (un)representable pathology or banality?

Khadra’s novel is part of a larger literary trend which emerged at the turn of the twenty-first century in francophone African literature wherein violence became more extreme and graphic with explicit portrayals of the body in abjection, horror, and abasement.8 Khadra’s novel stands apart through what I call his flood of violence: an over-representation of carnage and gore, this flood is a focus on excessive forms of aggression, a proliferation of images of the violated body in which nothing is left to the imagination and the flow of bodily fluids is especially central to the narrative descriptions. Although the other novels taken as examples for this trend contain some detailed, explicit descriptions, they are brief, in passing, and more allusive in nature.9 Furthermore, scholars Odile Cazenave and Patricia Célérier have concluded that these other novels present more of a ‘reflection on the ultimately inexpressible experience of violation’.10 Khadra engages, however, in a gluttony of violent representations in order to destroy, in part, any boundary between civilized and savage, between past and present, between the West and Africa. Khadra, then, is writing, as this article contends, against the notion of violence in Africa as inexpressible. Rather, this novel engages in what I would term a ‘surplus of representability’, insisting that the horror to which Africans have been subjected is and must be representable and represented.

But does this African literary trend and the enduring relationship between violence and African literature serve to (further) pathologize Africa? Or does it reify, in First World imaginations at least, that brutal and savage acts are the sort of the thing that only happen in Africa, that is, that violence in Africa is inherent, ordinary, and banal? Khadra himself has spoken out against how the media is indifferent to the horrors it shows happening in Africa, while also treating these atrocities as something endemic to the continent.11 In Africa it seems paradoxical, then, that violence creates a pathology related to the continent while simultaneously making it something normal, everyday, ordinary, as if the pathology leads to a normalization or is itself normalized over time. Khadra’s writing questions what has become a passive if not banal response to violence in Africa and African literature. His insistence on the representability of excessive violence emphasizes thus the extreme, extraordinary nature of violence to which African populations remain subject as it disabuses readers of the notion that this violence is in any way natural to Africa.

Many scholars of literary violence and those writing about Khadra tend not to examine the specific language used to describe gore, rape, or brutality or to argue that this language is revelatory of, first, ties to colonial time and space, and, second, the complicity between African states and peoples and the (former) colonial powers.12 This language subsequently reveals the ways in which both Africans and the French continue and reproduce acts of brutality in Africa. A quoi rêvent les loups reveals that the Algerian Islamists of the 1990s inscribed themselves in the logic of the War of Independence and thus contributed to and kept alive a legacy of anti-/colonial violence. Khadra’s use of violence never ceases to disturb space and time, so that while Africa is pathologized as a continent of violence, the writing complicates the origins and continuations of this anti-/post/neo/colonial violence, forcing the reader to question whether an iteration of violence is a production or a re-production. The flood of violence, of a language of excess in gruesomeness and vulgarity, provokes then a reconsideration of the anti-/post/neocolonial paradigms which continue to make manifest the bodies which re/produce violence.

Disease, filth, and the (damned) spectre of colonialism

A quoi rêvent les loups is divided into three parts: ‘le Grand-Alger’, ‘la Casbah’, and ‘l’abîme’. At the beginning of the second part, ‘la Casbah’, Khadra switches to third-person narration for the first (but not last) time in the novel’s diegesis. Here, Khadra presents a brief, dystopic vision of Algiers through the metaphor of a raped, incestuous mother:13

Alger était malade. Pataugeant dans ses crottes purulentes, elle dégueulait, déféquait sans arrêt […] Alger s’agrippait à ses collines, la robe retroussée par-dessus son vagin éclaté […] les yeux chavirés, la gueule baveuse tandis que le peuple retenait son souffle devant le monstre incestueux qu’elle était en train de mettre au monde. Alger accouchait. Dans la douleur et la nausée. Dans l’horreur, naturellement […] Et les hommes, à leur insu, s’identifient au carnaval des damnés. Alger brûlait de l’orgasme des illuminés qui l’avaient violée. Enceinte de leur haine, elle se donnait en spectacle […] avec la rage d’une mère qui réalise trop tard que le père de son enfant est son propre rejeton. (pp. 91–92; emphasis original)

Although Khadra writes allegorically in this passage, he nevertheless anchors the violence in the reality of the pervasive disease, rape, and slaughter of 1990s Algeria, heeding therefore Mbembe’s declaration that the tropes of

‘Mouth,’ ‘belly,’ and ‘phallus,’ used in popular speech and jokes, must be located in the real world, in real time […] They are active statements about the human condition, and contribute integrally to the making of political culture in the postcolony.14

In one of the novel’s few footnotes, in which Khadra explains an Arabic term, he discusses the sabaya, that is, women who were spoils of war, kidnapped, raped, and then, upon the first sign of pregnancy, murdered. So, whereas the above passage depicts a figurative act of incestuous rape, it is nevertheless anchored in the reality of the particular forms of violence to which women were subject during the décennie noire. While Khadra writes in yonic – rather than Mbembe’s phallic – terms here, his location of the metaphor in the real world and time of 1990s Algeria makes his statement on the human condition one of misery, horror, and self-destruction.

In this metaphor, Algiers finds itself surrounded by disease, filth, and infertility, all of which it generated itself through a transfusion of its legacy of anti-/colonial violence. Reminiscent of Mbembe’s claims that ‘The obesity of men in power, their impressive physique or, more crudely, the flow of shit which results from such a physique […] make[s] it possible to follow the trail of violence and domination intrinsic to the commandement [a simulacrum or ‘imaginary’ of state power]’,15 the metaphoric faecal matter from the raped woman permits the reader to trace the violence enacted upon her body to the fighting between governmental and Islamist forces. In this (female) city of vomit and defecation, Khadra makes it clear that the disease comes from within, from inside, as the excrement is already infected. Likewise, the image of a monstrous child as the product of an incestuous relationship implies an interiority, as if Algiers – and greater Algeria – is on a self-destructive path. Nothing about the passage indicates a healthy woman (city): her ‘child’ is conceived out of rape and hate, and the birth is described in excruciating detail – I am thinking of the ‘shattered vagina’ here – which suggests that this ‘woman’ will likely be unable to conceive and give birth again. The pulverized genitalia create a ripple effect whereby time rips open so that the atrocities of 1990s Algeria become an unbroken, continuous flow of the FLN’s anti-/colonial tactics in which both sides committed similar acts of torture and other mutilations upon the body.

These passages manifest a concern for and condemnation of the particular brand of violence which touched only women. While Khadra’s portrayal of a gendered violence affirms his self-declared attention to the situation of Algerian women, it nonetheless also challenges his assertion that he ‘celebrate[s …] Algerian women – they were always at the forefront of their people’s battle’.16 In À quoi rêvent les loups, women are depicted overall as victims to the war waged around them by men and they serve primarily as metaphors – metaphors which in turn perform a violence upon the female body – to depict the male-driven and male-centred narrative of brutality. The representation of women in this novel is complex, as the female characters and metaphors largely correspond to the violent reality that women endured in Algeria in the1990s and yet they remain overwhelmingly reduced to what has historically been a victim status. Although Khadra periodically brings this gendered violence to the forefront of the novel, these passages raise an important question – one with no easy answers – about whether these representations might serve to reify the image of women as victims and objects in and of a male-dominated war culture.

A quoi rêvent les loups: An historical culture of war

In the last ten years, various scholars have stressed a war-oriented ‘imaginaire’ and ‘culture of violence’ particular to Algeria.17 Jacob Mundy claims that the décennie noire was ‘driven by a violent imagination unique to Algerian national identity’:18 when the Islamists challenged the FLN-led state, they ironically used the same rhetoric the FLN had used when it challenged the French colonial state.19 Furthermore, the Islamists also believed – just as the FLN had believed during the War of Independence – that violence was the only solution, a solution which the Islamists all espoused even after they had fractured into several opposing groups. A quoi rêvent les loups invokes a post/anti-/colonial legacy of violence as a twisted body politic through which (human bodies in) Algeria creates the terms of its own irrevocable ruination yet, paradoxically, simultaneous continuation. The surfeit, the flood, of grisly language also gradually reveals that the post/colonial violence of the 1990s reproduces but distorts the revolutionary anti-/colonial violence of the 1950s–1960s.20 The novel thus underscores Algeria’s enduring connection to and inability to separate itself from an historical legacy of violence, one which is re-producing, and therefore destroying, itself.

Similarly, the question of complicity extends from the Islamists’ post/colonial bodies to the Algerian post/colonial body politic, back to the anti-/colonial FLN forces. Besides the 1988 riots (which Khadra subtly references several times with ‘88’), in which the state killed some 500 civilians, the FIS claimed that the Algerian state – led by the FLN – was still linked culturally and militarily to French colonial powers. The violent tactics deployed by the FIS were, in their minds, just like the violent strategies the FLN used to free themselves from colonialism, pointing to the role of the FIS as accomplice in the re-generation of the anti-/colonial bodies of violence. However, Khadra’s precise and aggressive prose – using words like ‘decapitated’, ‘quartered’, ‘burned alive’ – produces disturbingly precise images of violence, unfolding horror in a progression that makes manifest Algeria’s inability to sever its historical cord with anti-/colonial violence. This inability, as Khadra paints it, sets Algeria on the path to self-destruction. Khadra’s novel creates, then, a rupture in time in which post/colonial gore resembles at once both colonial and anti-/colonial acts of barbarity while simultaneously fashioning a re-generation of and a continuity between the time of colonial power and that of postcolonial Algerian society.

In the midst of his metaphor of the diseased, filthy, incestuous, and (female) gendered city, Khadra inserts the identification of the men enacting the violence, unbeknownst to them, with just one of his many references to the damnés. In the context of Algeria, particularly Algerian violence, this reference implicitly recalls Fanon’s seminal work on the violence during the Algerian War of Independence. Fanon’s analysis of the Algerian population’s belief that the only way out of colonial violence was to respond with violence nevertheless led him to conclude that this ‘counter-violence’ was not a tenable position. Writing before the end of the War of Independence, Fanon claims that once the war is over and won, the violence will not cease. Rather, in a foreshadowing of Mbembe, the decolonized will reproduce both the colonial structures and the colonizers’ logic of Manicheism: ‘On voit donc que le manichéisme premier qui régissait la société coloniale est conservé intact dans la période de décolonisation. C’est que le colon ne cesse jamais d’être l’ennemi, l’antagoniste, très précisément l’homme à abattre’.21 Khadra shows that the legacy of violence in Algeria is leading to its own demise, as this violence is all the more untenable because it distorts the violence of 1950s–1960s Algeria which it reproduces. Although the Islamists inscribe themselves in this legacy of anti-colonial violence – or rather because of it – Khadra makes manifest what Fanon notes in Les Damnés de la terre. Fanon describes this cycle of violence/counter-violence as totalizing and ultimately not a viable long-term solution because it absorbs and consumes the individuals into a greater body of violence from which there is no coming back: ‘Cette praxis violente est totalisante, puisque chacun se fait maillon violent de la grande chaîne, du grand organisme violent […] Illuminée par la violence, la conscience du peuple se rebelle contre toute pacification’.22 In other words, because the fighting in the 1990s continued to self-transfuse the colonial legacy and heritage of anti-/colonial violence, Algeria was, and still largely is, creating the terms of its own elimination. The Algerians are les damnés as much due to the violence they endured at the hands of the colonizers as to their engagement in a violence which will lead to their own destruction. Khadra’s references to les damnés thus connect these men to the national Algerian body that fought against the French colonial presence. Consequently, the continuity with the anti-/colonial forces depicts a repetition of the past or rather an unbroken circle wherein Algeria does not move forward but merely turns around in time and space. Khadra inscribes therefore postcolonial Algeria and its violence into a body which can only ever damn itself.

Writing 30 years after the Algerian War of Independence drew to a close, Benjamin Stora described how both sides – France and Algeria – deployed lies, repressions, and denials as to the reality of the war, albeit in different ways.23 Stora further details how this ‘denial’, this inability or unwillingness to face or put forth the truth, creates an infection, what he calls a ‘gangrene’, which slowly eats away at the fabric of society in both France and Algeria. Khadra similarly engages a language of disease, and gangrene in particular, in order to amplify his own aggressive prose and show that, in his own words, ‘Rien n’est tout à fait endémique [à l’Afrique]’.24 For the GIA in A quoi rêvent les loups, the group behind many of the massacres of 1997–1998, all of Algeria is sick: ‘Et ce pays gangrené qui est le nôtre, que la sécheresse terrasse à cause de nos péchés …’ (p. 228). This novel suggests then that the post/colonial body politic – through a belief in the gangrene, that is, the moral corruption and decay, of its society, one which is merely a continuation of the gangrened colonial presence – has mutated into a new body, one which is also decaying and dying. Khadra links the human body to the political body where both are diseased through this use of violence and thereby makes manifest the grotesque complicity between post/colonial and anti-/colonial bodies. Near the novel’s end, after a scene of massacre which ends in brutal infanticide, one of Nafa’s colleagues tells him they have gone too far and that ‘Même en enfer, les damnés et les démons vont manifester pour exiger du bon Dieu de nous transférer dans un enfer aux antipodes du leur’ (pp. 267–68). In this Dantesque reference, wherein these Islamists will go even deeper into hell, this last massacre-related appeal to les damnés suggests that the Islamists have ruptured their present and interlocked with their past, creating a continuation, yet also a perversion of the revolutionary anti-/colonial violence.

Irreversible dehumanization in the postcolony

In the only principal scene of violence unrelated to the décennie noire, Khadra manages nevertheless to underscore the pervasive saturation of horror and casualness with which parts of the Algerian populace treated life in post/colonial society. Prior to his engagement in the FIS, Nafa goes to work for a rich family, the Rajas, whose son at one point is with a young prostitute who dies from a drug overdose. Hamid, a trusted employee, and Nafa the chauffeur are asked to take care of it and as Nafa drives Hamid and the cadaver to the woods outside of the city, he quickly realizes they are not there to bury her:

[Hamid] farfouilla dans les buissons alentour, rapporta une grosse pierre, la souleva et l’écrasa sur le visage de la fille avec une violence telle qu’un éclat de chair m’atteignit la joue. Pris au dépourvu, je me pliai en deux pour dégueuler. Hamid frappa encore, et encore, m’éclaboussant de giclées de sang et de fragments d’os. Chacun de ses han me lardait l’esprit et me courbait un peu plus […] Mon urine cascadait sur mes cuisses flageolantes. À bout, laminé, je tombai à quatre pattes, la face dans mes vomissures, et me mis à hurler, à hurler … (p. 75)

Khadra’s use of éclat, giclée, han, hurler, atteignit, and éclaboussant generate an overwhelming, overloading, of the senses where the reader, too, can see, hear, and practically feel the gruesome flesh, bone, and blood being scattered and sprayed. Yet again, Khadra’s language is one of excess and exhibits here an overkill which causes Nafa to lose control of his body, as urine and vomit flow and mix with the dead woman’s blood. This excess of language reflects the excess, the extra(ordinary), in the violence itself.

Moreover, Khadra’s overly savage prose underscores the saturation of barbaric acts in 1990s Algeria, but it also generates a new cleft through which Nafa is (re)inscribed into the colonial paradigm of imposed animality. In a discussion on how colonialism imposed an animality on the colonized – a discussion which would be echoed 40 years later by Mbembe – Fanon writes, regarding the violently enforced colonial logic and language, ‘Parfois ce manichéisme va jusqu’au bout de sa logique et déshumanise le colonisé. À proprement parler, il l’animalise. Et, de fait, le langage du colon, quand il parle du colonisé, est un langage zoologique’.25 Khadra engages an animalistic language wherein the use of ‘pattes’ and its association here with ‘hurler’ highlight that, reminiscent of Fanon’s and Mbembe’s claims, outside forces are yet again responsible for a loss of control and abasement of a (former) colonized subject.

Although Nafa’s body is forced to reintegrate the colonial paradigm of bestiality in a postcolonial society, Khadra turns the question of humanity versus imposed animality inside out when Nafa becomes the one generating carnage. As the prologue continues, Nafa tells us how he committed his first homicide, the assassination of a lawyer who had poorly defended an Islamist. This was an act which was next to physically impossible for him and, once completed, Nafa realizes that something has irrevocably changed within him: ‘Pareil à une météorite, j’ai traversé le mur du son, pulvérisé le point de non-retour: je venais de basculer corps et âme dans un monde parallèle, d’où je ne reviendrai jamais plus’ (p. 16). Much like Mbembe’s assertion that the powerless colonized body is propelled ‘out of the world’ and ‘takes on himself or herself the act of his or her own destruction and prolongs his/her own crucifixion’,26 Nafa’s postcolonized body creates the terms of his own ruin through this first homicide. The pulverization – one which Nafa feels and which scholar Mohamed Daoud sees as provoking a ‘profonde mutation’,27 creating a separation between the referent and the character – equally provokes a fissure through which Nafa begins his path to dehumanization. Yet Nafa’s dehumanization, unlike in the case of colonial violence, is imposed from within rather than without.

While Nafa extends the colonial paradigm, he perverts and twists it, fracturing it to the point where – unlike Fanon’s claims that ‘[la décolonisation] introduit dans l’être un rythme propre, apporté par les nouveaux hommes, un nouveau langage, une nouvelle humanité. La décolonisation est véritablement création d’hommes nouveaux’28 – the re-humanizing or creation of new men is made impossible. After the massacre and infanticide, Nafa comes across his own image: ‘Il y avait une glace […] J’étais choqué. Je ne me reconnus plus. Mon reflet n’avait rien d’humain’ (p. 269). The mirror similarly shows Nafa in an alternate universe, but one where he is now inhuman, where he no longer sees any humanity in his own image as the consequences of his savagery mark, mutate, are made visibly manifest, upon his body. Just as Fanon argues that the violence of (de)colonisation ‘modifie fondamentalement l’être’,29 À quoi rêvent les loups suggests that one cannot kill and be just human at the same time, once one kills one has always already set in motion one’s own annihilation.

While the dehumanization here is a distorted continuation of the colonial paradigm, Khadra’s prose indicates that Nafa’s acts create a permanent rupture from which there is no healing. After the massacre, Nafa’s colleague tells him: ‘Des bêtes immondes lâchées dans la nature, voilà ce que nous sommes devenus’ (p. 268). Fanon had underlined that the colonized Algerians viewed violence as the only solution to escape the inhuman, animal-like identity the colonialists had imposed on them. But for Nafa there is no coming back from the beast he has made himself into, as Khadra implies that Nafa dies shortly after hearing his colleague’s words. Rather than the colonial body imposing animality upon the colonized bodies, the perpetrators of post/colonial violence have shattered all remaining traces of their own humanity. Khadra’s novel shows though that this legacy of violence has turned the world inside out, that post/colonial bodies perpetuate yet also fracture the paradigms of anti-/colonial bodies. À quoi rêvent les loups reveals the complicity between contemporary Algeria and both the anti-/colonial forces and the colonial powers. The post/colonial bodies have ruptured not just time, but their own bodies, and turned themselves into animals, have become irreversibly more beast than man.


The analysis in this article has presented a violence – bodily mutilation, mutation, modification – that ruptures time and space in order to emphasize the complex historical ties to colonization and the neo/post/colonial continuities in contemporary francophone societies. Khadra’s aggressively grisly prose on massacres and infanticide, on saturation of blood and torn flesh, accentuates the exacerbated, auto-destructive legacy of post/anti-/colonial violence in Algeria. Khadra’s glut of gory writing further shows that the self-destruction stems, paradoxically, from this very legacy, wherein the bloodletting is an auto-reproduction of similar acts committed 30 years prior, which were themselves reproductions of acts learned from the colonialists. Ultimately, Khadra’s massacres and infanticides point to the shrinking chances of a viable future and to societies which find themselves perpetually in the past.

Khadra employs a ‘surplus of representability’ or ‘flood of violence’, that is, a near incessant language of extreme violence to underscore in the most obscene, savage, and profane terms that, while this violence might be a recurrent, frequent phenomenon, it is extraordinary. This violence is thus neither inherent nor endemic to Africa, but stems from, interlocks with, the (former) colonial forces and flows forward in time and space. Through a complicity between former colonizer and former colonized, the violence ruptures the human body as well as the societal body politic and opens the path to seeing the origins and perpetuations of these violent practices. Khadra’s excess of abject and profane language demonstrates his choice to write an extreme violence which generates a tidal wave of temporal and spatial contamination, so that neo is also post is also anti- is also colonial. In an interview about his novel L’Equation africaine, Khadra has stated that he wishes to ‘convoquer des problems afin de les vulgariser’.30 Through his aesthetics of violence, Khadra makes the horrors more visible, more visibly vulgar, so that perhaps the future can still be recuperated.

The decade-long conflict in Algeria is referred to by many as a ‘civil war’. However, scholars such as Leperlier and Mundy have pointed out that the term ‘civil war’, as it relates to Algeria, was highly contested at the time and was a label that came from outside Algeria, many Algerians believing it did not apply to their case. This article will use the term ‘décennie noire’ to reference 1990s Algeria as it is, according to Leperlier, the most ‘neutral’ means to describe the conflict. See Tristan Leperlier, Algérie, les écrivains dans la décennie noire (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 2018), p. 14; Jacob Mundy, Imaginative Geographies of Algerian Violence: Conflict Science, Conflict Management, Antipolitics (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).

James D. Le Sueur, Algeria since 1989: Between Terror and Democracy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), p. 200.

Yasmina Khadra, À quoi rêvent les loups (Paris: Editions Julliard, 2009). All references to this text will be given in parentheses in the body of the article. Khadra, whose real name is Mohammed Moulessehoul, began using his wife’s name as his pseudonym in order to avoid censorship while he was an officer in the Algerian army. He did not reveal his true identity until around the time of the publication of A quoi rêvent les loups, once he had left the army.

See Kwame Anthony Appiah, ‘Is the post- in postmodernism the post- in postcolonial?’, Critical Inquiry, 17 (1991), 336–57. I rely upon both what Appiah refers to as ‘literally postcolonial’, meaning that which comes after independence (p. 346), and his formation of the postcolonial as that which is inextricably linked to the West, thereby delegitimating the binary of the Self and Other (pp. 348, 354).

Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony, trans. A.M. Berrett, Janet Roitman, Murray Last, and Steven Randall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

Ibid., pp. 14–16; emphasis original.

Frantz Fanon, Les Damnés de la terre (Paris: La Découverte/Poche, 2002 [1961]).

See Odile M. Cazenave and Patricia Célérier, Contemporary Francophone African Writers and the Burden of Commitment (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011). Cazenave and Célérier cite several novels, all of which concern themselves with the Rwandan genocide to some extent, as best representative of this trend in which violence is ‘taken to the extreme’ (p. 101).

See for example Alain Mabanckou’s Les Petits-fils nègres de Vercingétorix (Paris: Le Serpent à plumes, 2002), in which he writes around a rape: ‘il libéra un râle bestial de jouissance, se releva […] Il donna l’ordre à un autre homme, puis à un autre encore de répéter la même besogne’ (p. 55). This can be compared to Boubacar Boris Diop’s Murambi, le livre des ossements (Paris: Éditions Stock, 2002), where he talks about what happens after a rape: ‘Quand ils ont fini, ils te versent de l’acide dans le vagin ou t’enfoncent dedans des tessons de bouteille ou des morceaux de fer’ (p. 121). This passage, and a few others like it, while grotesque and gruesome, is an isolated event (unlike in Khadra, where such passages proliferate), with the majority of other violent passages remaining in generalities such as ‘kill’, ‘rape’, ‘torture’.

Cazenave and Célérier, p. 108.

See Nadia Agsous, ‘Entretien avec Yasmina Khadra à propos de L’Equation africaine’, La Cause littéraire, 9 March 2012, >> [accessed 5 October 2016]; ‘Yasmina Khadra: “A battle of extremes”’, Al Jazeera English, 17 January 2015, >> [accessed 7 October 2016].

For examinations of literary violence, see Cazenave and Célérier; Pierre N’Da, ‘L’écriture de la transgression ou le parti pris de la subversion des codes. L’exemple de Sony Labou Tansi et de Baenga Bolya dans La vie et demie et Cannibale’, in Sony Labou Tansi: témoin de son temps, ed. by D. Gérard Lezou and Pierre N’Da (Limoges: Presses Universitaires de Limoges, 2003), pp. 47–59. For scholarship on violence in Khadra, see Lucy Brisley, ‘Melancholic violence and the spectre of failed ideals in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and Yasmina Khadra’s Wolf Dreams’, in Panic and Mourning: The Cultural Work of Trauma, ed. by Daniela Agostinho, Cátia Ferreira, and Elisa Antz (Berlin: De Guyter, 2012), pp. 85–100; Mohamed Daoud, ‘Yasmina Khadra: violences et crise des représentations’, in Le Roman maghrébin de langue française aujourd’hui: rupture et continuité, ed. by Habib Salha (Tunis: Publications de la Faculté des lettres de La Manouba, 2008), pp. 65–74; Louiza Kadari, De l’utopie totalitaire aux œuvres de Yasmina Khadra: approches des violences intégristes (Paris: Harmattan, 2007); Michèle Chossat, ‘À quoi rêvent les loups? De l’animal et de l’humain selon Khadra’, in Violence in French and Francophone Literature and Film, ed. by James T. Day (New York: Rodopi, 2008), pp. 143–51.

Khadra is of course not the first to deploy these tropes; Kateb Yacine presents a similar image of Algeria as a mother and incest-born lover in his 1956 novel, Nedjma (Paris: Seuil, 1956). Yet Khadra takes up this legacy and amplifies the image to a much more graphic and gruesome degree, turning it inside out.

Mbembe, p. 108.

Ibid., p. 107.

Goel Pinto, ‘A man named Yasmina’, Haaretz, 30 November 2006, >> [accessed 30 January 2019].

See Luis Martinez, The Algerian Civil War, 1990–1998, trans. by Jonathan Derrick (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Luis Martinez, ‘The distinctive development of Islamist violence in Algeria’, in The Enigma of Islamist Violence, ed. by Amélie Blom, Laetitia Bucaille, and Luis Martinez, trans. by John Atherton, Ros Schwartz, and William Snow (London: Hurst & Company, 2007), pp. 121–35; Benjamin Stora, Les Guerres sans fin: un historien, la France et l’Algérie (Paris: Stock, 2008).

Mundy, p. 66.

See also Lucy Brisley’s analysis of the passage of a mother in labour, where she states that the metaphor of incest ‘establishes a melancholic genealogy of violence that begins with the independence movement and continues into the 1990s’ (pp. 88–89). Similarly, Louiza Kadari claims that, in the Khadra universe, violence has become intrinsic to Algeria (p. 45).

Numerous scholars have highlighted the similarities and parallels between the Algerian War of Independence and its décennie noire 30 years later, in particular the violence and the rhetoric used to fight the current state. See LeSueur; Martinez, Algerian Civil War and ‘Distinctive development’; Mundy; Stora, Guerres sans fin. While Khadra scholars Daoud and Brisley have also noted parallels between 1950s/1960s and 1990s Algeria, no one has hitherto claimed that the violence is a distorted, perverted reproduction of the violence in the 1950s–1960s.

Fanon, p. 52.

Ibid., pp. 90–91.

Benjamin Stora, La Gangrène et l’oubli: la mémoire de la guerre d’Algérie (Paris: La Découverte, 1992).

Agsous, ‘Entretien avec Yasmina Khadra’.

Fanon, p. 45.

Mbembe, pp. 173–74.

Daoud, p. 72.

Fanon, p. 40.


Agsous, ‘Entretien avec Yasmina Khadra’.


Author details

Watson, Julianna Blair