Where does human brutality come from? Are human beings bad bynature? Good by nature? Or should human beings be compared to animals? Mohammed Dib’s collection of short stories The Savage Night attempts to address these questions through stories inspired by, but not limited to, the horrors of the Algerian tragedy.
He writes: “One of the main things that ties these stories together is an implicit question: How can we, in our shared humanity, have allowed ourselves to be a party to the great wrongs of this century and, in so doing, create an era of even more prolific crimes? It would be too much to attempt to answer the why of this question; the least we can do is state the how, expose human beings for the insidious buffoons they are, engaged in the insidious farces of this insidious time.”
This type of inhumanity in allowing horrific crimes to occur against helpless individuals is nicely exemplified in the short story The Companion. In the story a young man, among others, is arrested in a café bust in Algeria. And as they are chained to each other walking in the street, a French man lashes out at one of the young man and brutally attacks him to the point of death while the crowd and police officers just watch.
The short stories in The Savage Night are a more subtle and “fairy tale” in nature. Mohammed Dib likens our nature to do evil and wickedness to a latent beast, which lurks inside us, a Hunter, though invisible, is omnipresent. The Hunter represents violence that is indifferent, unlimited and devoid of all feeling.
The Eye of the Hunter tells the story of a young woman that is murdered by her companion. The story is told, for the most part, as the inner monologue of the murderer.
He writes: “And someone pulls the knife out of the tree trunk it was stuck in. Not I − someone else, the unknown hunter. The one who’s comes up without anyone really asking him to. The one who doesn’t need any particular space to exist or move around in − he fills all space. He goes through doors as easily as air.- The one who crops up in as many different places as can be imagined and in just as many different directions. At times we can catch a glimpse of him if we want to, springing up out of nowhere and then suddenly vanishing from sight, becoming invisible. […] The vagabond flees, and the unknown hunter begins the chase. Foolishly believing he has a chance, the vagabond dodges, feints, and wrapped in his rags, is like a cornered hyena − nothing but a wild animal.”
The Little Girl in the Trees is a tale of a little girl admiring the world (a garden that becomes a forest) and the actions of her Mama and Papa from afar until she finally joins her Papa.
He writes: “Here I am off hunting, and for the moment, Papa is close behind me. We are penetrating deep into the forest, the palace of these dark soldiers, all decked in white tunics, still, silent. […] We’re moving along through the legions standing in close orderly formation, but they are rationing out air. […] We’re but wolves now, a vague memory informs me of this. Wolves back in their natural habitat. The forest is the paradise once lost. I didn’t remember that. This is where we originated. […] Things will speak of their own accord when they want to. That’s what they are doing right now, all around us. No sense questioning them orspeaking in their place. You just have to trust them and listen. We’re all ears, Papa and I − that’s how we learn our lesson and get a secondchance. It’s a secret. The same one that was burning a little while ago. Pain, I was saying, brutality.[…] He takes off his wolf mask he was wearing. But where did he put it? He’s not holding it in his hand. […] Now that his lids stop blinking, his eyes are glowing with a gentleness only found in wolves. […] So, Ist and before him thinking as if in a dream, “Wolf, we’re not prowling around in the woods anymore now, but in gentleness.” […] In the end, his gaze has turned back in on itself. He’s drawn in his light, but only to take on that velvety gentleness once again which fills, like in a dream, the eyes of certain animals.”
Although most of the stories are centered on bleak themes, there is a constant reminder of the beauty in the world and the kindness of small gestures like in the story Life Today. In other words, that there is hope for the human race. That good can be found and must be nourished in our children. In fact most of the protagonists in the stories are children. For example, he makes us understand the gravity of brutality through the questions, hopes and songs of a little girl whose parents have sold her eyes for money to the colonizer (depicted as the blue eyed people) for sustenance in Paquita, or The Ravished Gaze.
Throughout, history writers and philosophers have debated whether man is essentially bad or good. Augustine, Hobbes and Kafka basically argued that man was bad by nature. Hobbes argued “human beings are so aggressive, self-aggrandizing, and obsessed with their own personal advantage that social controls are necessary to protect them from each other.” (David P. Barash, Ideas of Human Nature From the Bhagavad to Sociobiology,p. 133) Although some of Kafka’s work deals with the impossibility of achieving justice and personal validation, “underlying his work is apersistent criticism of people: However bad our human situation, he seems to be saying, it would not be quite so dire if we didn’t treat each other as we do.” (David P. Barash, Ideas of Human Nature From the Bhagavad to Sociobiology, p. 139)
There are others, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Kropotkin, which have argued people are basically good because of their ability to love and show kindness, and feel for those in need without knowing them personally.
I prefer the hypothesis that human beings start off as a white (or blank) page where they can choose to be good or evil. I was reminded of this when I read the opening lines of The Girl in the Trees by Mohammed Dib:
“The morning comes. A door swings silently, opens. The world is white. I saw it. One single white page, with no memories. You can draw whatever you like on it. […] But it’s best to wait for just a bit. It’s best to look at that miracle, that whiteness, that which is already there, that which exists in the beginning. And it should look at you a bit too. Whiteness born of emptiness, whiteness born of silence. […] Also, you either know how to look or you don’t − how true! But it doesn’t hurt to try. The sooner you go down into your garden, the better your chances are of getting a glimpse of that white page, offinding it unspoiled in all of its splendor. I look around, and its true: the night has erased the world so that it can be reborn and so that we can rediscover that page upon which everything can be written anew.”
In memory of a great writer Mohammed Dib.
All short stories mentioned can be found here in The Savage Night, by Mohammed Dib.