THE LOVERS OF ALGERIA
By Anouar Benmalek
Translated from the French by Joanna Kilmartin
Graywolf. 278 pp. Paperback, $16
In a country occupied by foreign armies and terrorized from within by Muslim extremists, the road out of town is often the place where the world ends. The end comes in the form of armed men with covered faces appearing through the windshield just when it seemed the car was going to make it through, roadblocks where civilians are taken hostage, bombs exploding on the roadside. This may sound like the daily news from Iraq. It's also the Algeria of Anouar Benmalek's The Lovers of Algeria, originally published in 1998 in France, where it became a bestseller, and now available here in Joanna Kilmartin's English translation.
Anna and Nassreddine are the lovers of the title, and they lose each other to roadside ambushes many times over the course of the story's 42 years. In the beginning they're traveling by bus in Algeria in 1955, during the time of the French occupation. Although they have infant twins, they've just married at the town hall in Algiers. Because Anna is Swiss and Nassreddine is Algerian, they travel in fear. They're transgressors, like Romeo and Juliet.
The couple is almost home when soldiers board the bus, taking Nassreddine aside and interrogating him. He is arrested and tortured -- the French soldiers mistakenly believe him to be a member of the FLN (the Front de Liberation Nationale -- Algerian resistance fighters).
"So they use electricity on him, then the bottle up the anus, then the rag soaked in urine and disinfectant. Everything seems to proceed according to some well-established, rather tedious routine. . . . On the third day, inevitably, Nassreddine sings, his courage having deserted him." He gives the soldiers a few names, individuals he "vaguely suspects of being Front supporters." The names are currency that will buy an end to physical pain. He is free to return to his wife and their young twins. But Nassreddine is punished by those he named; when he returns to his village, he finds the corpses of his children, who have been killed in retaliation. Anna has been spared, but she has disappeared. "She was like a madwoman," the neighbor tells Nassreddine, "pulling out her hair in handfuls."
Flash forward to 1997. The occupation has ended, but now the country is in the grip of terrorist violence. Anna returns to Algeria to look for the graves of her children after her second husband, a European, has died. She does not expect to find Nassreddine -- she assumes he died in prison -- but she sends a vaguely addressed telegram in his direction anyway. Suspense builds around the telegram's fate: Will he receive the message? Will he rediscover the bride last seen on a stalled bus, breathing in the road's mean dust?
The upheaval of the country in which Anna and Nassreddine fall in love does not allow for continuity; it does not allow thoughts to be finished, since so many thoughts end in a memory of something unspeakable. Although the book's unfortunate title implies a Harlequin Romance-style fantasy, this is a story of colossal brutality. Barely a page goes by without bloodshed. Even a traveling circus must kill its elephants to feed the starving lions. Terrorists cut their victim's throats, quickly and efficiently, while praising Allah. One of the main characters, a young boy called Jallal, survives this fate only to emerge with sliced vocal cords and a scar across his neck. In the book's metaphoric scheme, he's Algeria itself -- almost ruined, with a slight and wavering voice. He has lost everything, but he's still alive.
Benmalek skillfully juggles time shifts and multiple characters; despite the political chaos he depicts, the reader never feels lost. Yet often the book's power is undercut by overwrought prose that proclaims the obvious or underlines the emotion of scenes that do not need such breast-beating emphasis. Hearing a song his mother once sang to him, a character closes his eyes tight because the "nostalgia evoked by this lullaby is truly unbearable." (If he simply closed his eyes, we'd understand.) Thinking of a scalded infant, a mother's heart "melts with sadness." (The baby's burns are enough; the heart does not need to melt, too.) Nevertheless the novel's sex scenes are charged with vitality. Benmalek does not abandon the lovers to their young lust but includes scenes of lovemaking in old age, when sex becomes less a bodily urge, more a dream of peace, of a road out of the world. For Anna and Nassreddine, trying to find each other in a place where anyone can be "disappeared," the amnesia of sex is as necessary as the dream of an afterlife. *
Emily White is the author of "Fast Girls."