The Lovers of Algeria
A novel by Anouar Benmalek
Graywolf Press ,Due/Published August 2004, 288 pages, paper
Nine-year-old Jallal is old enough to know that his life in Algeria is precarious at best. Having run away from home, he survives by selling peanuts and single cigarettes on the street. The proposal by the elderly Swiss woman named Anna is shocking and preposterous: go to the mountains with her, as a translator, so she can find her lost lover from decades ago and pray over the graves of their murdered children.
Anna and Jallal's journey is wrought with danger and unspeakable tragedy. It was under similar circumstances that Anna first met the Arab Nasreddine. Ousted from the traveling circus where she performed as a trapeze artist, she had little choice but to accept Nasreddine's dangerous offer to live with him in a makeshift tent. But it was here, amid poverty, racism, and terrifyingly random violence, that they fell in love.
A best seller in France, The Lovers of Algeria is a candid story about a country where terrorism and government corruption are commonplace. As Anna and Nasreddine, beaten by time and memory, circle each other in Algeria, Anouar Benmalek shows with heart-wrenching detail that love can endure even the most inhuman conditions.
Reviews of The Lovers of Algeria
"This compelling, richly plotted novel of love and redemption, translated from the French into dense and fluid prose, follows the fortunes of mismatched lovers in warn-torn Algeria….A hopeful, tale that adroitly employs old-fashioned storytelling to denounce political oppression." —Aug 13, 2004, Entertainment Weekly
"Benmalek imagines a world where hope can exist for his characters and, by extension, for Algeria." —Time Out New York“A study in contrasts, The Lovers of Algeria pits eroticism against terrorism in a compelling love story…. As the evocative language dramatizes its subject—terrorism and its consequences—the effect is chilling and relentless.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Benmalek skillfully juggles time shifts and multiple characters; despite the political chaos he depicts, the reader never feels lost.” —Michael Caines, The Washington Post Book World
"A captivating novel…Benmalek’s disjointed, dream-like treatment of time and his interweaving of romance and turbulent history will remind readers of Michael Ondaatje." —Publishers Weekly, starred review
“But it is the violent images, flatly stated, that remain long after the book has been read. The novel ends with hope, with hard-earned faith in the ability of love to sustain the world’s bruises. But the bruises in the novel are such that you cannot help but gasp. Each day, as news trickles in about the 9/11 trials in Germany, the soldiers killed in Iraq, the torture photos and the violence on all sides, The Lovers of Algeria resonates more deeply—as a warning, one hopes, not an omen.” —Austin-American Statesman
"[The Lovers of Algeria]…is perhaps the most significant novel to come out of [France] since Camus’ early writings….Fiction should never be a kind of political wish fulfillment, but when scripted powerfully, it can imagine the impossible. In this searing and important tale, Anouar Benmalek has done just that." —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“A complex tale of love and personal loss inextricably connected to the era of Algeria’s war for independence….This deeply emotional story depicts the dehumanization and fragmentation of individuals, families, and a nation undergoing the struggle for independence. While tragic, it is also inspirational, as love ultimately triumphs.” —Library Journal, starred review
“Not only has Benmalek given us a vividly written, fabulously plotted, and well-paced story, so too has he given us the opportunity to examine the harrowing history of a country about which many of us know precious little.” —Harvard Review
"Solid, engaging, and agonizingly brutal." —Kirkus Reviews
"In the late 1990s, a bloody civil war erupted in Algeria and more than 150,000 people lost their lives. The government cracked down on fundamentalists -- whom the military had blocked from taking power -- and the fundamentalists responded by abducting or killing Westerners. One can understand how baffled Algerians would be, then, by the spectacle of a 65-year-old Swiss woman meandering through downtown Algiers without a tangible sense of fear. This is how we meet Anna, the heroine of this novel, which was a runaway best-seller in France and perhaps the most significant Algerian novel to move in French literary circles since Albert Camus' early writings. The first thread of Benmalek's story goes back to Anna's romance with her first husband Nassreddine, whom she met in Algeria in the '50s. The second thread begins in 1997, the year she loses her second husband and makes a pilgrimage back to Algiers to look for Nassreddine. Anna finds an unlikely protector in nine-year-old street urchin Jallal, who has run away from home and makes a living selling peanuts and cigarettes. Shuffling between these two narratives, the novelist presents a prismatic, if didactic, view of his native country's history over the last fifty years. Fiction should never be a kind of political wish fulfillment, but when scripted powerfully, it can imagine the impossible. This searing and important tale has done just that. It is now up to Benmalek's countrymen to live up to their part of the bargain. -- John Freeman, East Bay Express, Sep 29, 2004
"Anouar Benmalek has been compared to Michael Ondaatje for his ability to weave together romance and historical turmoil. This novel (a Lannan Translation Series selection) makes its first appearance in the United States after meeting with great praise in France, winning the French Rachid Mimouni Prize. The Lovers of Algeria presents, in addition to a captivating love story, Benmalek’s commentary on politically unstable Algeria and the impact that civil war has had on its citizens. . Joanna Kilmartin has translated the final volume of Marcel Proust’s Selected Letters (1999) and Patrick Modiano’s Dora Bruder (1999)" -- Translation Review, Vol 10, n° 2, 2004, THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT DALLAS
"This is the story of a great love that crosses boundaries and endures, but it is not for the faint of heart...Dramatic, horrifying in its revelations of the misery people are willing to wreak upon each other, sensuously descriptive, and offering no promises of a glorious future, the novel is a grim reminder that when governments do not protect individuals, love and understanding are all that is left to give meaning to life" -- Mary Whipple, Mostly Fiction BOOK REVIEWS, nov 7, 2004
"A best seller in France, The Lovers of Algeria is an unflinchingly candid story about a country where terrorism and government corruption are commonplace. As Anna and Nasreddine, beaten by time and memory, circle each other in Algeria, Anouar Benmalek shows with heart-wrenching detail that love can endure even the most inhuman conditions" -- New Books for Your Life-Long Learning, The Reinert-Alumni Library , june 2008