The Lovers of Algeria
Source: Harvard Review
Publication Date: 12/01/2004
Author: Rooney, Kathleen
The Lovers of Algeria
by Anouar Benmalek,
translated by Joanna Kilmartin, Graywolf Press,
2003, $16.00 paper, ISBN 155597404X.
When Algerian novelist Anouar Benmalek's timely and touching The Lovers of Algeria made its debut in the U.K. in 2001, the Independent compared its themes of loss, brutality, inhumanity, and injustice to those frequently addressed by Albert Camus, pronouncing it "arguably the most important novel by an Arab author to have emerged from that country in the intervening 50 years." Readers in France--where the book has sold over 250,000 copies and won the prestigious Rachid Prize--seem to agree.
Now, thanks to Graywolf Press and the luminous translation of Joanna Kilmartin, readers in the U.S. can see for themselves why The Lovers of Algeria (Les Amants Desunis) has garnered such attention and critical praise. 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.
Divided into three sections covering three major time periods--before and during World War II when the French were still a powerfully oppressive colonial force, the aftermath of the war during which the Algerian Liberation Front fought for the country's independence, and the late twentieth century during which Islamic terrorists wreaked havoc on the very citizens they purported to be fighting for--The Lovers of Algeria delivers a sweeping crash course in the large-scale horrors of a country struggling to break fully free of the chains of colonialism and religious extremism.
Yet, by focusing on the relationship of the titular lovers--Anna, the Swiss trapeze artist, abandoned under circumstances of racial hatred and anti-Semitism by her circus during a Pan-African tour, and her husband, Nassreddine, an Arab villager who has come to Algiers seeking a means of earning a living in his impoverished and war-torn country-- Benmalek's novel puts a wholly human face on decades of otherwise almost unfathomable personal suffering and political upheaval.
Interestingly, the story of Anna and Nassreddine, wed at mid-century only to see their children slaughtered and their marriage torn asunder, loosely traces that of Benmalek's own family. In fact, among the many dedications preceding the text is one to his maternal grandmother, "driven by the blows and hazards of fortune from her native ... Switzerland, to the turbulent shores of North Africa." Ultimately, Anna and Nassreddine end up apart for years after their forcible separation in 1955, a chance at a reunion occurring only after Anna's Swiss husband dies and she, feeling herself nearing the end of her life, returns recklessly to Algeria to seek out her children's graves as well as Nassreddine himself.
To aid in her search, Anna enlists the help of Jallal, who "sells peanuts and single cigarettes from an upturned cardboard box," and who "is nearly ten years old, but looks older." The rapport between the urchin and the elderly woman provides some of the book's most sharp and insightful dialogue, and Jallal himself represents a compelling symbol of the promise and peril of Algeria itself, teetering as he does between despair at the present and hope for the future.
Clearly, Benmalek's undertaking is an ambitious one, and at times the material, with its impressive scope and weighty significance, threatens to spin out of control. Yet for the most part he acquits himself admirably, proving adept at delivering almost unendurably graphic accounts of the atrocities perpetrated by both the French armed forces and the fanatical moudjahidine, as well as panoramic descriptions of Algeria itself in all its geographic diversity, from the Mediterranean coast to the Sahara Desert.
In a sense, then, as the Independent suggests, Benmalek picks up where Camus left off. It is easy to see how, given the oppression wrought first by the French colonizers and later by the decolonized Muslim extremists, he might agree with his literary forebear's belief that "Every revolutionary ends up either by becoming an oppressor or a heretic." Yet, unlike his bleak predecessor, Benmalek permits his story to be permeated with hope. Rather than an existential allegory, he presents us with a realistic albeit extraordinary account, bearing an epigraph by Jacques Prevert: "There are not five or six wonders of the world, but one alone: love." In the end, Benmalek manages to convince you that--even in the face of war, terror, and death itself--this must certainly hold true.
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