Attaquer la terre et le soleil, a masterful new novel by twenty-year critically acclaimed author Mathieu Belezi exemplifies the madness and hell of the nineteenth century colonization of Algeria. Sophie Langlais, foreign rights agent for the BAM agency, answers our questions.
BIEF: Sophie Langlais, you are a partner at the literary agency BAM which manages foreign rights for Le Tripode. Could you tell us, briefly, about Attaquer la terre et le soleil?
Sophie Langlais: Attaquer la terre et le soleil tells the story of the settling of a colony in nineteenth century Algeria from two different prospectives, one of a mother, the other of a soldier. We witness the incredible culture shock these two displaced French people experience. Two people who have never travelled and who discover this country they do not know how to take on board, its inhabitants whose language they don’t understand as well as the fanatical violent discourses to which the colonizing soldiers are subjected. We also witness community life, the few happy family moments and village festivals that mark the time between epidemics and the surges of violence against the colonized populations.
BIEF: Mathieu Belezi has been writing about this colonization for fifteen years through his Algerian trilogy: C'était notre terre, Les vieux fous and Un faux pas dans la vie d'Emma Picard. His books have been published by different publishers and now Le Tripode wants to publish all of his works.
Sophie Langlais: Le Tripode has committed to publishing ten of Mathieu Belezi’s books over five years. They will be republishing existing works, publishing new versions of already published texts and, of course, introducing unpublished texts. This is a big undertaking for an independent publisher – making such a strong commitment to a single author. This venture has also impressed foreign publishers. This editorial initiative was announced in an article in Le Monde about a Richard Gaitet TV show on books and publishers. There was also a superb portrait of the author and consequently of his publisher in Libération.
In creative fields such as publishing, it is always difficult to plan a collections or series: manuscripts arrive late, a first novel is discovered at the last minute… In this case, the production schedule is assured and thus a sure thing for a foreign publisher, allowing them to quickly publish the works of an author whose books are like classics and who is available to explain and promote them.
BIEF: You refer to Mathieu Belezi (born in 1953), someone who has travelled extensively and author of fifteen novels and short stories, as a major writer. What makes you say that?
Sophie Langlais: It's obviously subjective, but I believe it because of the universality of his works. Whether you read them fifteen years ago or will read them in fifteen years his books will always be relevant. The themes he takes on are timeless - war, death, violence, childhood, desire, loneliness. His stories echo Greek tragedies in their evocation of a ruthless destiny that befalls men.
BIEF: How many copies of this new novel have sold in France?
Sophie Langlais: The Tripode sold 16,000 copies and reprinted 40,000 once it was awarded the 2023 Prix du Livre Inter.
The book has been very well received across the board. By booksellers: François Bétremieux the publishing company’s bookstore relationship manager, noted nearly a hundred listings as bookstore favourites. By readers: the book received the 2023 Prix des lecteurs Escale du livre. By the press: it was on the front page of Le Monde des livres, received the Prix littéraire du Monde and the author was featured in an interview in Libération.
BIEF: Mathieu Belezi's style and works on colonization are being compared to Faulkner. Is this justified?
Sophie Langlais: Yes! Faulkner is a reference that speaks to everyone: his powerful dark descriptions of the state of the world, the alliance of a style that is both epic and very realistic. This is indeed Mathieu Belezi’s style
BIEF: The taboo around the colonization of Algeria is primarily a French issue. Did that impede the sale of foreign rights?
Sophie Langlais: The Algerian story is certainly French, but colonization is world history, a global topic. The happy family moments sometimes evoke Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie; the notion of settling lands beyond borders, like in the Wild West; a cultural reference that speaks to everyone. The scenes of the cholera epidemic are reminiscent of Jean Giono's The Horseman on the Roof, and more recently, the very early days of the Covid epidemic in China and Italy. This panic and fear of people watching their loved ones die without understanding what is happening or how to stop it, can be understood by everyone around the world.
BIEF: The rights were sold in Spain, to which publisher? How well has it done?
Sophie Langlais: It was my colleague Julián Nossa who sold the rights to Spain. José Hamad, at Sexto Piso, wrote him this message: "The French colonial presence in Algeria is not a subject that is often covered in Spain, but Spaniards and Latin Americans understand colonization. When we opened the book to review it, we knew that we would have to fight to keep it alive in bookstores and in the press, but every page convinced us it was worth it. All our readers agree: it is a visceral work that throws a bright light not only on the violence and misery of Algerian colonization, but also on humanity in general. »
BIEF: Have other foreign publishers expressed any interest?
Sophie Langlais: Yes, several publishers asked for Attaquer la terre et le soleil as well as Le petit roi, Mathieu Belezi's first novel published in 1998, after having been introduced to them at a variety of fairs and markets. We will soon be following up with the manuscript of Le Tripode’s January 2024 Belezi release. The book has aroused a lot of interest in Italy, especially since the author currently lives in Rome. It has aroused interest in the United States as well, where the author's cultural references speak volumes, and in the Netherlands, whose colonial past has features in common with those of France.
Interview by Katja Petrovic