La jeune femme et la mort by Nabile Farès and Kamel Khélif

La jeune femme et la mort pays a visit to Madala, Algeria during the early colonial period. In this poetic text by Nabile Farès with illustrations by Kamel Khélif, nineteenth century Madala and today’s Paris are largely covered by clouds of smoke and fire, rendering a vivid graphic text that is dark, blurred, but also powerfully figurative of a painful past-time that continues to rekindle in French literature.

The short story focuses on Yemna, a local who watches in silence her town slowly burn. The former school where she learned how to read has now turned into ashes and a French school replaced the town's zawiya. In this new world, Yemna's language suddenly becomes foreign while languages from outside regions become alive. Their mountainous landscape also sees a rapid industrialization that produces yet more dark clouds.

As a post-memory evoked by a man along the Seine—a location also reminding us of the violent 17 October 1961—Yemna’s recollections of her life are sporadic. Her present becomes her childhood and her future.

By setting their comic album in a memorial space darken by death and devastation, Farès and Khélif offer us a site to explore the postmemory of colonialism, how it reverberates in present day. Khélif’s mastery of ink painting which emotionally blackens and fades Yemna’s scenes provides insights into the timeless violence and intensity of the French conquest of Algeria.

Though brief, La jeune femme et la mort is a poetic narrative that will require several readings and slow contemplation of its frames. Its language and figurative and visual images frequently shift time, place, and shades. While the colonial past is conjured, no frame depicts a direct scene of the warzone, we only see fires, ashes, blurred faces contemplating their present. Reading it in the 2020s context, one cannot help being moved by its environmental sensibility: the colony of smoke is not only a representation of the suffering of the colonial war but also the physical damage inflicted into the body of this town in the mountains of Titteri.

La Jeune femme et la mort (2010) by Kamel Khélif & Nabile Farès. Rackham, collection Le signe noir. 52 pp.