Barriers of language

August 24, 2001

THE LOVERS OF ALGERIA. Translated by Joanna Kilmartin. Anouar Benmalek. 288pp.

Harvill. Pounds 15.99. TLS Pounds 13.99.


    The Lovers of Algeria is the first of Anouar Benmalek's novels to be translated into English, three years after its publication in France. One of its themes is language barriers. One lover, Nassredine, an Arab, says to the other, the Swiss Anna, whose life in the circus has brought her to Africa: "In French, I would feel that I was lying to you, juggler. I'll teach you Arabic and Chaoui: perhaps then, with your soul, you'll understand all the impossible words that go through my head?" This intimate struggle with language takes place in a wider multicultural context; characters switch between languages, tribal appellations, body language and dress codes. This is not easy to render in idiomatic English, and Joanna Kilmartin's translation achieves both elegance and an Algerian ambience.

    In 1955, when the novel begins, the French authorities arrest Nassredine on suspicion of aiding the National Liberation Front (FLN). Anna is deported back to Switzerland. Suspecting Nassredine of betraying them, the FLN take reprisals against his children and his mother. From this prologue in medias res, the novel takes two directions, exploring the lovers' lives up to this starting point (this is their second long separation); then, forty years on, Anna returns to Algeria to find her husband. That some knowledge of the recent history of North Africa is assumed does not mar the story at all. Independence (in 1962) did not solve Algeria's problems, and in the early 1990s, the FIS, the Islamic fundamentalist party, was outlawed and began a guerrilla campaign against the Government. (The novel was written before the Islamic Salvation Army's ceasefire in June 1999.) In 1997, unaware of Anna's return to his country, Nassredine is contemplating suicide, while his neighbours are being bullied by both sides. At first protected by the colour of her skin and her passport, Anna becomes a terrorist target. When she leaves the city for her husband's douar, the place of his upbringing, she pays a boy called Jallal to act as her guide on a journey which leads them both into danger. Ironically informing the present with the stories of the protagonists' lives before they met, the novel takes on an epic dimension, across the century and the neighbouring continents of Europe and Africa; at all times and places, pitting the innocent against the inhuman. Anna's father is "the Dog"; when she runs away with the circus, he is glad to be rid of her; "the Boar", a brutal prison warden, breaks Nassredine's ribs. Both Nazi and American armed forces leave the ordinary people worse off. Estrangement and death sour the romance, and there is no sanctuary from the inhuman force of history:

    Colonisation, nearly a century old, still has many a long, terrible year to run . . . . How was one to defeat by force of arms these strong, handsome people who grabbed all the best land, whose native country across the sea was reputedly a miracle of power and luxury?

    Anouar Benmalek is one of the co-founders of the Algerian Committee against Torture. He has a long-standing commitment to humanitarianism and is representative of a distinctly Algerian resistance to the domination of the West. His beliefs drive The Lovers of Algeria to some extreme depictions of the violence; the terrorists' executions of soldiers and suspected informers are shocking. There is perhaps something predictable about the way each minor character recites his tale of woe. The executioner, like the chemist who tries to pilfer army supplies, or the hotelier who loves his country in spite of its wreck, has his own predicament within this particular circle of hell. Given the dedication of the novel to "all those in Algeria who no longer have a voice", it is not surprising to hear such testaments as these. Benmalek compensates for the speechifying with his ear for telling silences, when paranoia stills all voices. "You never knew who might be spying for the Islamicists or the security forces, that friendly neighbour, perhaps, who was staring at you so insistently a few seconds ago."

    The claustrophobia is fearfully symmetrical. Anna's relationship with Jallal mirrors Nassredine's with his friend, Jaourden; for her surrogate mother in the circus, Rina, he has two competing mothers; the supposedly mad old woman, Khalti, has lost two sons to the army and two to the mujahidin. Benmalek handles the classic patterns of romance, from an initial dislike to sensual awakening, with equal sensitivity and seriousness. He takes his epigram from Jacques Prevert -"There are not five or six wonders of the world but one alone: love" -and sets about proving it. Privy to either lover's history to which the other has no access, we can appreciate this miracle of understanding all the more thanks to this passionate novel.