Questioning the Nation: Ambivalent Narratives in Le Retour au désert by Bernard-Marie Koltès
Questioning the Nation: Ambivalent Narratives in Le Retour au désert by Bernard-Marie Koltès
Kathryn Kleppinger 0
0 New York University , USA
Bernard-Marie Koltès has remained nearly as enigmatic almost 20 years after his death as in the early 1980s,
when his plays routinely challenged and confused contemporary audiences and critics. Koltès' writing, which
combines lyric elegance with biting social commentary, has gained in popularity over the past two decades,
but analysis of his work has concentrated primarily on his critique of the French bourgeois lifestyle. 
Recent studies, however, have made significant gains in our understanding of postcolonial minority identities
and questions regarding national belonging in the Koltesian theatrical project. Donia Mounsef, in her analysis
of Koltès' last play, Le Retour au désert, analyzed the role of the body as a site of mediation for concerns about
the interplay between France and Algeria. Catherine Brun, also studying Le Retour au désert, has developed
the link between the Algerian War and the break down of a provincial bourgeois family. Building on these
ground breaking observations, I wish to take the question of postcoloniality in Koltès' work one step further
by exploring the ways in which his characters interact with the concept of the nation. Beyond simply
challenging racial and social constructions, I argue, Koltès reveals a fundamental ambivalence regarding the
value of nationality as a tool for identification. As we will see, he breaks down traditional understandings of
French national identity by questioning its foundational philosophies yet also calls for a new, reinvigorated
solidarity through interracial mixing and dialogue.
Thi s working paper is available in Working Papers in Romance Languages: http://repository.upenn.edu/wproml/vol2/iss1/3
Questioning the Nation: Ambivalent Narratives in Le
Retour au désert by Bernard-Marie Koltès
Post a Comment Author Bio
New York University
Bernard-Marie Koltès has remained nearly as enigmatic almost 20 years after his death as
in the early 1980s, when his plays routinely challenged and confused contemporary
audiences and critics. Koltès’ writing, which combines lyric elegance with biting social
commentary, has gained in popularity over the past two decades, but analysis of his work
has concentrated primarily on his critique of the French bourgeois lifestyle.  Recent
studies, however, have made significant gains in our understanding of postcolonial
minority identities and questions regarding national belonging in the Koltesian theatrical
project. Donia Mounsef, in her analysis of Koltès’ last play, Le Retour au désert,
analyzed the role of the body as a site of mediation for concerns about the interplay
between France and Algeria. Catherine Brun, also studying Le Retour au désert, has
developed the link between the Algerian War and the break down of a provincial
bourgeois family. Building on these ground breaking observations, I wish to take the
question of postcoloniality in Koltès’ work one step further by exploring the ways in
which his characters interact with the concept of the nation. Beyond simply challenging
racial and social constructions, I argue, Koltès reveals a fundamental ambivalence
regarding the value of nationality as a tool for identification. As we will see, he breaks
down traditional understandings of French national identity by questioning its
foundational philosophies yet also calls for a new, reinvigorated solidarity through
interracial mixing and dialogue.
While any number of Koltès’ plays contribute to this discussion, I have chosen to focus
on LeRetour au désert, the last play Koltès published before he died in 1989. This play
embodies the key strategies he employs to undermine strict definitions of national
belonging, in particular by questioning the primacy of the French language and by
problematizing the active participation in national collective memory. We will therefore
proceed on three levels: first we must develop the traditional philosophy of French
national understanding as defined by Jules Michelet, Maurice Barrès, and Ernst Renan,
three thinkers credited with developing the specifically French conception of national
identity. We will then analyze Koltès’ portrayal of these constructions, which reveals that
his characters subvert the tools of the French republican model in order to undermine
illusions of national cohesion. These characters speak French but also Arabic, and they
either mock or refuse to recognize French history. As a result, the French nation no
longer brings them together. Finally, we will situate Koltès’ approach in a broader field
of study by analyzing convergences between his plays and work by Benedict Anderson
and Homi Bhabha. Anderson’s and Bhabha’s contributions to the theory of national unity
will elucidate Koltès’ approach in communicating an ambivalence toward the French
Before we proceed, however, it will be helpful to sketch a brief summary of the play. Le
Retour au désert takes place in the early 1960s in a provincial town in eastern France,
most likely inspired by Koltès’ native Metz. The story begins with Mathilde, who returns
from Algeria in a spirit of revenge after having fled France during the post-World War II
épuration. Her brother Adrien now inhabits their childhood home along with his family
and his servant Aziz, a Frenchman of Algerian descent. The play chronicles the
challenges these characters face as they reestablish connections. We learn that Mathilde
has two children, Édouard and Fatima, and that Adrien is a member of the Organisation
de l’ArméeSecrète (OAS), a French paramilitary organization committed to preventing
Algerian independence. Koltès saw this play as his only comedy, and many scenes
contain unexpectedly amusing elements. Le Retour au désert ends with Fatima giving
birth to black twins (with no concrete indication of who could be he father and no notice
before hand that she is pregnant), and Mathilde and Adrien flee, perhaps so as not to deal
with the town’s reaction to the scandalous babies, perhaps because they cannot stay in a
place that no longer means anything to them.
This story is, in fact, wide open for interpretation. In order to appreciate the various ways
in which Koltès engages with the idea of the nation, it will be useful first to expand on
the French understanding of national belonging. The historian Jules Michelet is a key
figure for this philosophy, and he argues that French history begins with the formalization
of the French language. As he notes in his History of France, “The history of France
begins with the French language. Language is the principal sign of nationality. The first
monument of ours is the sermon dictated by Charles the Bald to his brother in the treaty
of 843 AD” (79). For Michelet, the nation does not exist without a unifying language. As
Eugen Weber has demonstrated in his classic study of French peasantry, Peasants into
Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, regional languages
routinely competed with French in schools, churches, and government offices throughout
the 19thcentury.  Republican leaders understood the importance of language as a site
for national unification and devoted much energy to unifying the population through
standard French. The Third Republic, inaugurated in 1875, implemented this policy
through its national school system and mandatory military service, among other
In the opening scene of Le Retour au désert, however, we see that French is not the
unifying language of the characters. The play begins with a scene half in Arabic and half
in French. Mathilde, even though she is French, introduces herself to Aziz and to the
audience in Arabic. In this first scene, Aziz and Mathilde have the following exchange,
Aziz (mutters to himself): Today is going to be a terrible day.
Mathilde (entering): And why is it going to be a terrible day?
Aziz: Because, if the sister is as idiotic as the brother, it’s a given.
Mathilde: The sister is not as idiotic as the brother (87).
Since this first exchange occurs exclusively in Arabic, our first impression of Mathilde is
as a character who communicates comfortably in both French and Arabic and who is
possibly more attached to Arabic than to her native French. Her Arabic is convincing
enough that Aziz does not realize who she is right away. Mathilde, despite her “pure”
French heritage, functions between France and Algeria, and her choice of Arabic
undermines Michelet’s demand that France cannot exist outside of the French language.
By intentionally rejecting her native language, Mathilde creates a new understanding of
Frenchness outside of linguistic requirements.
Her brother Adrien, on the other hand, sees no value in learning any other languages.
When Adrien’s son Mathieu announces that he is tired of his father’s protectionism and
wants to join the army in order to see the world, Adrien replies, “A good Frenchman does
not learn foreign languages. He is happy with his own, which is entirely sufficient,
complete, balanced, pleasing to the ear; the whole world envies our language” (24). For
Adrien, even the desire to learn another language represents a betrayal of one’s country.
Since France represents the pinnacle of civilization, he sees no reason to learn another
language. It is of course not surprising to learn later that he is an active member of the
OAS, since this organization denied the existence of Algerian nationalism. In the play he
serves as an antithesis of his sister, since his intransigence serves to highlight Mathilde’s
willingness to cross all borders (national, racial, and social). The fact that they come from
the same family underscores the depth of the wounds inflicted on French society during
the Second World War and suggests the long-lasting and wide-spread impact of the
break-up of the colonial empire.
Aziz, the family’s Arab servant, mediates these extremes. Aziz was raised in France but
also realizes that he will never truly be considered French. He speaks French with most of
the other characters and only slips into Arabic on two occasions: once with Mathilde in
the opening scene and once in an Arab café owned by Saïfi, whose background is never
explained. Saïfi tells him, “You are an Algerian, Aziz, that’s all there is to it. ” Aziz
responds, also in Arabic, “I don’t know Saïfi, I just don’t know” (87). The conversation
continues, half in Arabic and half in French, but Aziz chooses to express his doubts in
Arabic, the language repressed and denied by his country of residence. In other words, he
uses Arabic to express his reservations about the assertion that he is Arab, thus
illustrating the paradox at the heart of his social identification: he does not belong
anywhere because he is not only too French to consider himself Arab but also too Arab to
consider himself French. He does not have one particular native language, and by
extension he does not have one particular national identity either. As we will see later in
the play, he is also the one character sacrificed to the terrorist insanity of the OAS.
These three linguistic choices reveal deeper insecurities about the characters’identification with the French nation. Mathilde was accused of sleeping with the German occupier during World War II and fled to Algeria after suffering the indignity
of having her head shaved, whereas Adrien is afraid of outside dangers and has
effectively built a fortress around his house to protect the family from the outside world.
Aziz, on the other hand, tries to mediate the divide between his French upbringing and
his Algerian homeland. Their choices of language, instead of tying them more closely to
France, expose a much more complicated situation in which all three characters suffer
from the current state of affairs. Rather than following Michelet’s rigid correspondence
between the French language and the French nation, Koltès uses language to subvert the
national framework and to reveal underlying fissures in the national project.
Beyond language, another key element of national identification according to the French
republican tradition involves active acceptance of dominant interpretations of the nation’s
history. Nationalist thinker Maurice Barrès developed these ideas with his notion of “la
terre et les morts,” the fatherland and the cult of the dead. In his Scènes et doctrines du
nationalisme, he explains,
I have my fixed points, my hooks in the past and in posterity. If I link them together, I
derive the glory of French classicism. How could I not be prepared for any sacrifice to
protect this classicism that has built my spine? I speak of a spine not as a metaphor but as
the most powerful of analogies. A chain of exercises throughout the centuries has trained
our reflexes (189).
Barrès argued that one becomes French as a result of a shared history and respect for past
achievements. Ernest Renan nuanced this philosophy in his speech entitled What is a
Nation?, in which he notes that in some cases one must glorify past victories and in other
situations conveniently forget or ignore past injustices: “Forgetting, and I would even say
historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation…every French citizen
must have forgotten the Saint Bartholomew massacre and the massacres in the Midi in
the 13th century” (34). According to Renan and to Barrès, it is impossible to be French
without an active understanding and acceptance of French history, but of course this
history involves hiding certain moments. In theory this construction allows anyone who
genuinely desires to become French to do so, since it defines national belonging
culturally rather than ethnically. As we have seen with Aziz’s discomfort, however,
organic nationalism continues to privilege those born with French genes.
Mathilde best exemplifies the complexity of collective memory in Koltes’ work. When
herbrother Adrien tells her that it is good that she has escaped the Algerian War and come
to “the house where she has roots, ” she replies, “My roots? What roots? I am not a salad;
I have feet and they’re not made to get stuck in the ground. As for that war, my dear
Adrien, I don’t care. I’m not fleeing any war; instead I’m bringing it here, in this town,
where I have some old scores to settle” (13). She settles her old score flamboyantly: she
and her son capture the police chief who shaved her head after World War II and they
perform the exact same punishment on him. In this action, Mathilde shows that she will
do what she pleases with her nation’s history. Rather than glorifying past triumphs and
forgetting harsh injustices, she tackles the matter directly and reopens the wound. She
actively refuses to accept the national myth surrounding the Second World War and even
manages to make the aftermath of the event look ridiculous when embodied by a bald
Adrien’s view of France, on the other hand, is so narrow that he fails to see the bigger
picture. While Mathilde cannot tie herself to any particular national framework, Adrien is
so preoccupied with protecting his family from the outside world and planning attacks on
Arab cafés that he fails to recognize that the country has changed. He learns the hard way
that it is no longer possible to live a cloistered life when his colleagues accidentally injure
his son in a bombing and when Fatima’s surprise babies reveal that she has slept with
someone Adrien would not consider “French. ” In perhaps the strangest scene of the play,
a black parachutist drops out of the sky, converses with Adrien in a parody of Charles De
Gaulle’s post-World War II speeches, and runs off as mysteriously as he arrived. There is
no indication that he is the father of Fatima’s twins, but it is entirely possible. Perhaps
this parachutist is the father of a new, openly hybrid nation? Either way, in all of these
examples, wesee that Adrien’s intransigent view of French history no longer explains the
situation at hand, and his determined blindness eventually undermines his main goal of
protecting his family. Just as Mathilde cannot accept her nation’s past, Adrien’s distorted
fears prevent him from participating fully in the national project.
Unlike Mathilde and Adrien, Aziz has no history. He is no longer connected to a family
lineage in Algeria, yet he also has no roots in France. French history does not apply to
him, since he has no “terre et morts” with which to identify. In Saïfi’s café when Aziz
expresses his doubts on his Arabness, Mathieu asks him, “If you are not an Arab, then
what are you? A Frenchman? A servant? What should I call you?” Aziz responds, “A
fool [couillon], I am a fool…I spend my time being a fool in a house that’s not mine, to
keep up a garden and wash floors that are not mine…The Front says that I am an Arab,
my boss says I’m a servant, the military service says I am French, and me, I say I am a
fool…I don’t give a damn about Algeria just like I don’t give a damn about France” (73).
Aziz’s lack of history is of course indicative of the same problems faced by almost all
colonial populations in France, and researchers have recently devoted much energy to
studying this situation. Even though the large influx of immigrants during the 1950s and
1960s was actually nothing new for France, these new arrivals suddenly reflect a
disintegrating empire and remain visibly separate from a French population created by
many generations of European immigration. As a result, it becomes all that much easier
for Adrien and like-minded compatriots to target specific immigrant groups, thus
underscoring the challenges they face as they try to find a place for themselves in a new
For Koltès’ characters, the French nation is an entity that exists on paper but not in
reality. Mathilde has actively rejected any glorification of “la terre et les morts, ” and
Adrien only sees what he wants to see. Aziz does not have any past at all. Using Benedict
Anderson’s elegant notion of the nation as an imagined community, we can say that these
characters exist in a refused community. Anderson, influenced by Renan in particular,
argues that nations exist as the result of a collective choice.  When members of the
community actively prevent this choice or undermine its values, the nation can no longer
exist in the same form. In the case of Koltès’ characters, they are unwilling or unable to
imagine their community in a constructive fashion based on the current political and
social situation. The French language does not predominate and French history is mocked
and rejected. The France they live in does not extend beyond the administrative state;
their hearts and minds are not captured. Based on Anderson’s theories, the traditional
model of the French nation has failed for them because it is not equipped to deal with the
complexity of their situation.
Moving one step further to Homi Bhabha’s understanding of the nation in his essay
“DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Mation,” however, the
theoretical framework presented in this study allows for dissenting discourses regarding
national belonging. In fact, Bhabha argues, the nation is located precisely in the
intersection of many differing narratives:
The scraps, patches, and rags of daily life must be repeatedly turned into the signs of a
national culture, while the very act of the narrative performance interpellates a growing
circle of national subjects. In the production of the nation as narration there is a split
between the continuist, accumulative temporality of the pedagogical, and the repetitious,
recursive strategy of the performative. It is through this process of splitting that the
conceptual ambivalence of modern society becomes the site of writing the nation. (297)
For Bhabha, the true nation can be found in the split between what he calls the
pedagogical and the performative, or the historical theories of national evolution and how
we act in daily life. Writing, particularly minority discourse, reveals this tension and
underscores the plurality of the nation that is often subsumed under broad historical
myths. While Koltès does not come from a minority background, his plays often attack
the dominant bourgeois social structure. He positioned himself as an unseizable outsider,
and it is not surprising that many interpretations of his work focus on his critiques of
In the case of Le Retour au Désert, Koltès effectively puts his finger on all of what
Bhabha would call the “liminal”points of the nation, or the exposed cracks in the national
discourse. His characters confront each other from many perspectives, and their
interactions demonstrate a wide range of interpretations of the French national project.
Mathilde’s past reveals that French society during WWII was not nearly as united as the
Gaullist resistance myth would like us to believe, and the black parachutist’s
appropriation of de Gaulle’s nostalgic speeches on the French provincial lifestyle
comedically extends French historical memory to include African populations. Mathieu’s
injury during the OAS bombing predicts that the French bourgeoisie will not be able to
hide from the disintegrating colonial empire forever, and Aziz’s existential crisis
foreshadows identity questions challenging North African immigrants and their children
that were largely ignored until the decade following Koltès’ death. By insightfully
covering themes that will not become a primary focus of research and policy-making for
another decade, the play supports Bhabha’s argument privileging narrative as a
fundamental expression of concerns related to national belonging.
Finally, however, it is important to note that neither Bhabha nor Koltès is entirely
nihilistic about conceptions of national belonging. Bhabha explains that he has developed
his theories of cultural difference in order to allow for a new, more cohesive organization
of society: “For it is by living on the borderline of history and language, on the limits of
race and gender, that we are in a position to translate the differences between them into a
kind of solidarity” (320). Bhabha sees that cultural difference can be a source of strength
rather than division, and Koltès ends his play on an optimistic note: Fatima, Mathilde’s
daughter, gives birth to black twins whom she names Romulus and Remus, a clear
indication of her ambitions for her sons. In an often-cited interview, Koltès bluntly
explains that as a teenager during the Algerian War, “I quickly understood that it was
them [foreigners] who were the new blood for France, that if France were to live just on
the blood of the French, it would become a nightmare. . . The only blood that nourishes
us at all is the blood of immigrants” (Une part de ma vie 116, 126-127). Rather than
pessimistically predicting the end of France, Koltès sees cultural mixing as a way to save
the French from themselves and as the source of renewed purpose for the future.
Perhaps the strongest compliment we can give to Koltès is that two decades after
publication and despite the rapidly changing political understanding of minorities in
France, his ideas still remain relevant. In his plays we see the seeds of many of the
political identity debates that still challenge historians, social scientists and politicians
alike, and a recent Comédie Française production of Le Retour au désert uncovered
tensions in the theater world about whether the role of Aziz must be played by an Arab
actor.  With an uncharacteristically comedic touch, Koltès’ characters eventually
manage to transcend divisive prejudices, and they leave us with the hope that they will
use their differences to formulate a new social order. Of course, both Bhabha and Koltès
leave the details of the solution up to their readers. In refusing to dictate a specific
roadmap for the future, they leave the door open for creative and constructive proposals
for new symbols of solidarity. How will Fatima’s Romulus and Remus create a new
classical tradition based on a mixing of ethnic, religious, and historical symbols, and how
will this project impact current political and social structures? It remains up to us to
determine what form our new national myth should take and how we will use it to
address the many divisions plaguing modern society.
 For examples of these classic arguments, see Grewe and Heed.
 For further development of these ideas in Weber’s work, consult Chapters 6, A Wealth
of Tongues and 7, France, One and Indivisible.
 Anderson’s classic definition of the nation can be found in the Introduction, pg. 6 of
the 2006 edition.
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Nation.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi Bhabha. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Brun, Catherine. “Le Retour au désert: un drame algérien?” Voix de Koltès. Ed.
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