Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 7, 2004
"The devil has entered our country, and his hoofprints are everywhere. No atrocity is too horrible for these madmen to contemplate. They're quite capable of cutting up their fathers and mothers while sipping their morning coffee."
Opening in 1955, when the French are battling insurgents to keep control of Algeria, Anna, a Swiss resident and former circus performer, and Nassreddine, a Berber from the Aures mountains of Algeria, are traveling by bus from his remote mountain village to Algiers to formalize their marriage. The two have been living together for seven years, and have four-year-old twins, a son and daughter, who are staying in the village with their grandmother, Zehra. The journey is long and hot—and very dangerous. As the bus makes its way through the countryside, it is "fair game" for any faction who can set up a roadblock.
The many factions within Algeria make it impossible to tell friend from foe. French soldiers look down upon Algerians, many of whom, ironically, fought to free France from German occupation during World War II. They treat the Algerians brutally in their effort to maintain order and have no respect for human rights. The Algerian Liberation Front (FLN), trying to rid the country of the French, is equally brutal with those Algerians they think are collaborating, often torturing and killing suspects with little evidence. Armed Islamic groups are fighting both the French and the Liberation Front for control of the minds of the population. The FLN considers many of their Muslim fellow citizens to be traitors because Muslim dignitaries often act as intermediaries between the French and the indigenous people.
When the bus is stopped by French soldiers, all passengers are forced out into the scorching sunlight, to be looked over by a hooded informer, who, himself, will be tortured if he fails to identify "traitors." When Nassreddine sees the eyes of the informer, he gives an involuntary gasp of recognition—it is his uncle. The gasp of surprise does not pass unnoticed. Convinced that Nassreddine must be a high official of the FLN because he has a blue-eyed wife with a Swiss passport, he is arrested, taken to jail, and tortured unmercifully. Anna is forced to go on to the village without him, and when he finally breaks down after three days of the most gruesome (and fully described) tortures imaginable, he compounds his problems by giving up a few names of people he believes involved with the FLN. Now, the FLN, too, feeling betrayed, is after him and his family. When Nassreddine finally escapes and makes his way under cover of darkness to his distant village, he finds his mother's cottage empty.
Alternating back and forth in time, author Benmalek traces the lives of Anna and Nassreddine and their parents, separately and together for seventy years, and in the process gives a political and social history of Algeria from 1928 through 1997. By 1997, both Anna and Nassreddine are in their sixties. Anna has been living in Switzerland, where she has always kept her Algerian past a secret. Nassreddine has stayed in Algiers, trying to live an anonymous life. Though the French have been forced to leave Algeria, peace has not occurred. The Liberation Front, now in power, rules as they themselves were ruled by the French--with a brutal police and military presence, but they are now challenged by Islamic fundamentalists. Torture, murders, mutilations, and the executions for which the French were condemned have continued into the 1990s as Algerian has turned against Algerian in an effort to survive. "Everyone suspected his neighbour. Furthermore, the spectators knew that, in two or three days at the most, [the group currently in charge] would leave. And then, as usual, they would be left to confront alone the prospect of endlessly reinforced armed groups, of being led, bound hand and foot, to a slaughterhouse death, or rackets and the kidnapping of women in the name of holy war."
Into this atmosphere of civil war in 1996, Anna returns to Algiers from Switzerland in search of Nassreddine. Hiring Jallal, a nine-year-old orphan who sells peanuts and individual cigarettes, to act as a translator, and wearing a traditional haik, she is determined to make her way back to Nassreddine's home village, the place they had always agreed to use as their common contact point. Anna's story alternates with that of Nassreddine and moves back and forth in time as both try to reach the village, each filling in the events that have happened in the meantime.
This is the story of a great love that crosses boundaries and endures, but it is not for the faint of heart. As the lives of Anna and Nassreddine, Jallal (the boy-translator), their parents, and their friends come to life (if one can call such an existence "life"), the reader is exposed to horrors that make Dante's Inferno look like a neighborhood picnic. Benmalek shows the kill-or-be-killed imperative that permeates all levels of society, and there are no exceptions. Existence depends upon being able to walk a fine line among all the groups fighting for power and not drawing attention.
Although the novel is melodramatic in the sense that everything bad that one can imagine, does, in fact, happen here to people the reader comes to care about, it is not melodrama for the sake of creating artificial emotion. This appears to be the way that real life is in Algeria—that if one escapes execution or mutilation by one group, another group will become convinced that one is, de facto, a traitor to their own interests. Every character here is a pawn, as, we are led to believe, are most of the ordinary people of Algeria. Life is tenuous at best, and survival seems almost accidental. Although the ending will not satisfy all readers, it is consistent with the fragility of life that the reader has observed throughout the novel. 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.