THE LOVERS OF ALGERIA
Anouar Benmalek, , trans. from the French by Joanna Kilmartin. . Graywolf, $16 (278pp) ISBN 978-1-55597-404-6
This captivating novel set in late 20th-century Algeria entwines the country's tumultuous politics with the personal histories of two lovers who found and lost each other amid the upheaval. Forty years after her twin children were killed by the FLN (Algerian Liberation Front), 65-year-old Anna leaves Switzerland for Algiers in search of her children's graves and her Arab first husband, Nassreddine. Attempting to disguise her European identity in a land rife with racism and terrorism, she dons traditional Arab dress and enlists the help of nine-year-old Jallal, a precocious, destitute street peddler. The unlikely couple ventures off into the mountains, but Nassreddine is living in Algiers, "the dirty, cruel capital which, in lieu of family, he has learned to love so dearly." Benmalek uses Anna's search for her husband, a spiritual pilgrimage in its own right, as a way of reaching into the past: he shows Anna as a disillusioned circus acrobat; Nassreddine imprisoned, interrogated, tortured and wrongly accused of everything from resistance fighting to cannibalism. Despite the violence, corruption and discord, however, Benmalek never denies Algiers its beauty—"magnificent beneath its blazing sun." Vivid language and striking metaphors bring the landscape to life, and temporal shifts establish a punishing distance between the characters as they search for one another. This book was a bestseller in France, where it was awarded the Prix Rahid. With a poetic but light-handed translation by Joanna Kilmartin, a more modest but admiring reception here should be expected.
Reviewed on: 07/05/2004