Morocco Bound

The Lovers of Algeria: A Novel (Lannan Translation Selection (Graywolf Paperback)) BY Anouar Benmalek. Graywolf Press. Paperback, 288 pages. $16.
The Child of an Ancient People BY Anouar Benmalek. Random House UK. Paperback, 256 pages. $12.

The cover of The Lovers of Algeria: A Novel (Lannan Translation Selection (Graywolf Paperback)) The cover of The Child of an Ancient People

Algeria’s “war on terror” began in 1992, when a conclave of generals canceled the country’s first-ever democratic national elections to forestall an Islamist victory. Islamic extremists reacted to the brutal crackdown that ensued by taking up arms against the state for over a decade. Terrorist massacres, bombings and targeted assassinations, and the army’s dirty counterinsurgency campaign of torture, disappearances, and summary executions left two hundred thousand dead and many thousands missing.

The violence galvanized a new generation of novelists; most ambitious and farreaching has been the work of Anouar Benmalek, a mathematician and journalist, who moved to France in 1992 to escape Islamist death threats. Friends and colleagues who stayed behind—novelist Tahar Djaout, reporter Said Mekbel, and many others—were murdered by Islamists in the mid-’90s. The memory of these losses cropped up often in phone conversations I had last fall with Benmalek. Recalling the apolitical poet friend whose throat was slit because he dared to convene a meeting of both Arabic- and French-language poets (French, the colonial language, is anathema to the Islamists) and the Islamist leader who gloated on American TV in 1993 over the “execution” of Djaout, Benmalek was, understandably, bitter.

There’s no bitterness, however, in his novel The Lovers of Algeria, a best seller in France, first published in 1998 and now translated into ten languages. “A novelist has to have compassion for all his characters, even the assassins,” Benmalek explained when we spoke. But the assassins clearly interest him less than their victims. Following an old Mediterranean tradition (Aeschylus in The Persians, Euripides in The Trojan Women), he looks at war from the perspective of widows and orphans. The first chapter of The Lovers of Algeria is set in an Algiers cemetery in the mid-’90s. A chorus of women in black, Iranian-style chadors search among freshly dug graves for traces of their missing sons, perhaps dumped from a nearby prison. Into this place of horrors wanders the novel’s heroine, an elderly Swiss once married to an Algerian. Their two small children were slaughtered during the war for independence. She has returned, nearly forty years later, to visit their graves. By now, she’s an old hand at grief; the women in chadors are novices, but they have the rest of their lives to learn. This novel, an elegiac, multilayered meditation on Algeria’s violent history, earned Benmalek, who turned fifty last year and currently lectures in mathematics at the Université Paris-Sud, comparisons to Camus and Faulkner, as well as the wrath of the Algerian diplomatic corps in France.

“The only crime you’re allowed to talk about is colonialism,” he fumed. “We have a rolling amnesty, for the ’60s, for 1988”— when Algeria’s baby boomers rioted and the regime sent in the troops, killing five hundred citizens in the streets and torturing hundreds more. At the time, Benmalek and colleagues founded a committee against torture, even managing to publish a grim exposé, The Black Book of October, in 1989, before they were forced to flee the country.

“These amnesties rob us of our dignity as a people,” he told me, adding, “What I reproach most in the Arab world is the failure to denounce its own crimes. It’s the attitude of the defeated. We have been the defeated for four centuries now. No one is more racist toward the Arab world than Arabs themselves. Our refusal to impose standards on ourselves is profoundly racist. We’re resigned to seeing Arab regimes crush their citizens. The Arab League should have got rid of Saddam Hussein.”

No such resignation can be found in Benmalek’s 1987 novel, L’Amour loup (Feral Love; as yet untranslated into English), written after a trip to Lebanon when the country was under Israeli occupation. This moving portrait of a decimated Palestinian family inevitably implicates Israel but also excoriates Syrian torture cops, Jordanian soldiers, Palestinian slumlords, and Shiite militias. Benmalek dedicated the book to his father, a passionate autodidact who taught his children to think for themselves. Another influential family member was Benmalek’s Swiss-born maternal grandmother, Marcelle Wagneres, who ran away as a child to join the famous Circus Knie, where she became an acrobat and juggler. On tour in North Africa, she married a dark-skinned Moroccan in blithe disregard of racist colonial attitudes. Benmalek was raised on her stories and dazzled by photos of her flying through the air in tights. He recalled: “She was a woman who didn’t mince her words. She quarreled with my father, a complete patriarch. It was rough at times. But she gave me the idea that no one was superior or inferior to me. She gave me the feeling that the world was mine.”

Marcelle was the model for Anna, the courageous, cantankerous heroine of The Lovers of Algeria, who searches for the grave of her children, killed not under the French aerial bombardment but by Algerian rebels. They slit the children’s throats, in reprisal against their father, a “traitor” who broke under French torture and named names. This central episode is grisly but also, somehow, liberating, because it explodes the regime’s self-serving and dangerous myth of the glorious war for independence, where every rebel was a hero. The love story between Anna, the trapeze artist on the lam, and Nassreddine, her dreamy Algerian lover, plays out in vivid flashbacks spanning half a century, giving the book an unexpected lyric buoyancy. The tale evidences Benmalek’s faith that an erotic joie de vivre can make life bearable.

The ’90s conflict “was not a civil war,” Benmalek wrote (in an untranslated collection of his journalism, Chroniques de l’Algérie amère, 1985–2002 [2003]), “but a war against civilians,” because both sides attacked easy targets. In The Lovers of Algeria, a terrorist who has just cut three prisoners’ throats justifies the killing because the army did far worse when it tortured his innocent father to death with a blowtorch. A war of furious vengeance and escalating reprisals, this conflict and Benmalek’s exacting account of it should have been studied alongside Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, which was viewed in 2003 by Pentagon strategists searching for insights into the escalating insurgency in Iraq.

The Child of an Ancient People (2000), a historical novel, brings an Alsatian woman, Lislei, deported after the Paris Commune, and an Algerian rebel, Kader, deported after a failed 1871 uprising, to the French Melanesian colony of New Caledonia. The echoes of Les Misérables are suggestive, even provocative. Lislei sells not her teeth, but her virtue, to buy her freedom. Kader, an Algerian Jean Valjean, kills the fellow prisoner he’s chained to. On their getaway ship, they discover a traumatized ten-year-old Tasmanian boy, the last of his tribe, about to be sold as a scientific specimen. The unlikely couple rescue the boy and raise him as their own. From Benmalek’s African perspective, imperialism is totalitarianism on a global scale. His novel shows how the survivors of genocide in North Africa were sent halfway round the world to collaborate in genocide against another native people. Yet this South Seas adventure yarn doesn’t quite do justice to this complex subject.

An unapologetic secular humanist (“Democracy can only thrive where there is separation of church and state,” he said), Benmalek was glum about Algeria’s current path. The violence has abated. The pouvoir—the secretive shifting clans of military and political bosses who run the country as their private fief—achieved their aims during the violence: They cling to power, while in the public sphere the Islamist agenda advances. He listed the signs: the firing of TV-news producers who dared display the Danish cartoons, the introduction of the call to prayer five times a day on radio and TV, the many women wearing head scarves at his hometown university, and, most egregious, Algeria’s latest amnesty law, decreed last winter, which pardons crimes committed by state agents and most Islamist rebels in the course of the recent “national tragedy” (the official euphemism) and even makes it a crime to write or speak publicly about it “in a way that could tarnish the country’s international image.”

“We’re not Rwanda with its commission,” Benmalek conceded, “although there was something genocidal in the slaughter of children, but there has to be some way of saying in the simplest language: This was good, this was bad. And since the amnesty deadline keeps being extended, they get away with it.”

His latest novel, the picaresque, sprawling Ô María (2006), is about the loss of Andalusia, which for Benmalek is less a place than a concept, that of religious tolerance. The Andalusian dream died in 1610 with the deportation of an estimated half million or more crypto-Muslims from Catholic Spain to North Africa in leaky ships. The novel includes eyewitness testimony from a contemporary Catholic bishop “overcome with emotion” at the sight of passive crowds herded onto the docks, like lambs to the slaughter. Yet the cleric believes it was his religious duty to suppress such feelings.

“It’s a historical novel but a modern book,” Benmalek told me. Too modern, apparently, for Algeria, where right now “it’s almost impossible to discuss the place of religion in society.” The novel will not be published there anytime soon.

Suzanne Ruta writes frequently about world literature.