The Lovers of Algeria by Anouar Benmalek, translated by Joanna Kilmartin
When liberators become oppressors
Review by Amanda Hopkinson
Published: 19 October 2001
Albert Camus, pressed about his resolutely apolitical stance on the anti-colonial conflict in his native Algeria, famously no-commented: "If you force me to choose between justice and the tears of my mother, I will have to choose my mother." There was no way of weighing the wars – even the massacres – of the National Liberation Front (FLN) against the risk to the life of a single woman he loved.
Tragically, this famous statement is as topical a theme for The Lovers of Algeria, arguably the most important novel by an Arab author to have emerged from that country in the intervening 50 years. Anouar Benmalek, as if in an unconscious reference to Camus, even has one character tell the other: "One of our mothers will weep at the end of the day, and it should not be mine." This is the other side of the coin that Benmalek shows us. What happens when decolonised people start perpetrating the atrocities formerly wreaked upon them by their foreign occupiers?
In France, where Benmalek's book has now sold more than 250,000 copies, the country is only just coming to terms with the extent of the human rights abuses perpetrated in Algeria by the military in the 1950s. In many cases, these were the same armed forces who, under de Gaulle, "saved France" from the German Occupation. Then they became the occupying power in an imperialistic exercise as doomed as that of the Third Reich.
Former general Paul Aussaresses has sought to justify the policy of torturing and killing prisoners in his bestselling book Services Speciaux Algerie: mon temoignage sur la torture. Unrepentantly, he repeats sickening jokes from the interrogation sessions. Claire Mauss-Copeaux, meanwhile, based her Appelés en Algerie: la parole confisquée on interviews with 40 conscripts, several of whom also admitted to having used torture, and all of whom witnessed systematic atrocities. The popular appeal is precisely to what Camus meant by a sense of justice – and a desire to defend one's own. So powerful are these twin themes that fiction is at pains to overcome the force of reality.
The Lovers of Algeria – which, in English, sounds too much like an opera and not enough like the original Les Amants Desunis – are a Swiss trapeze artist, Anna, and her husband, the Arab Nassreddine, whose marriage has been torn apart by the self-styled forces of Islam and nationalism. The novel is broken into three periods and three sections. Following the massacre of the couple's twin children by FLN revolutionaries, who suspect Nassreddine of treachery, the narrative moves back and forth in time to fill in the story. Which, it emerges, is closely based on Anouar Benmalek's own extraordinary family history, right down to the pan-African tour by a Swiss circus.
The son of a sociology professor, himself a lecturer in mathematics at Rennes, Benmalek writes at times didactically, at times filling in the history of his home country. On the whole, this is all to the good, since there is so much to be learnt about this vast land stretching from the shores of the Mediterranean to the depths of the Sahara, so much of which remains mysterious if not incomprehensible.
Occasionally, the material becomes unwieldy, yet its descriptive strength draws the reader in time and again. We sense the "man she loved with skin the colour of cinnamon", taste "the terror that completely filled her mouth" or see "the austere brown of the land which never succeeded in overwhelming the green of fig and olive trees, trees often cherished more than fellow human beings".
Yet Benmalek's clear intention is to demonstrate hope, against Camus's despair, as he seeks to reconcile justice with humanity. The child Jallal – Anna's guide on her return to Algeria 40 years after her children's death – becomes the embodiment of hope, at once naive and wise beyond his years. His early experiences of violence and destitution are overcome by the gradually acquired awareness of the possibilities of transformation – not only of a personal humanity, but of his country's destiny.