Some books which one read make you think that maybe your comprehension skills aren’t as good after all. La voyeuse interdite (the forbidden watcher, or in its official translation title in English, Forbidden Sight), by Nina Bouraoui is one of those volumes, a story which is according to the back about a young woman in Algiers, cloistered away from the world, who sees a truck crash in front of her house, who doesn’t speak with her father, who struggles with her family and her dreams. But it quickly shows that it is little concerned with a conventional story: it is rather a drawn, mournful cry, of pain and misery.
It’s hard not to read the pages and avoid a feeling of crippling longing and regret that emanates from the main character (scrupulously referred to in the first person) in tragic waves. Her misery is a plaintive appeal, of being barricaded away, the helplessness, the hunted feeling of harassment that threatens her if she ever leaves, the tyranny of the family patriarch as he beats her, the self-hatred, the feeling of betrayal and doom which her maturing and sexual development engenders. There is a dramatic tone that serves as the vehicle of this passionate outburst, riven with exclamation marks, lengthy paragraphs of literary tragedy, the despondent alienation from life.
Alienation from life, one’s reduction to a passive observer, in a shadow world half-way between dreams and death: it is a very peculiar and distinctly different style. When one first reads the teaser on the back, there is the expectation of an almost detective-like story of trying to tell the tale of an uncomprehending world. It is more than that: it is a complete isolation from the world which creates this mentality of isolation, despair, and deep churning rage. And the crucial scenes of the book are ones where she is an observer to the rape/beating of her mother in the kitchen by her father, the harassment of noble Ourdhia as she walked away, unbowed, down the street, the car crash itself. Even in her dreams or nightmares she is an object to be acted on, the passive agent, the recipient of external actions.
If you went into La voyeuse interdite expecting a regular novel, you will be disappointed. And much of the intricacy of it is the abstractions, the irrealism, or fantasizing which plays out across the pages: this is difficult to understand, to follow. But the central message of the book, its helpless, passive, agonizing cry of a young woman who feels trapped in a world where she feels like she has no place, no freedom, no hope, where she can only chafe at the chains without hope of liberty: this screams through regardless.