The contemporary literary landscape for much of the non-Western world is littered with silenced writers, muzzled by their governments, sometimes incarcerated or murdered, or—at the very least—censured. Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, fits here dead center. All of his work is banned in Algeria—to hell with the numerous international literary awards to his credit. Silencing novelists, journalists, and cartoonists has become a growth industry. Our so-called age of instant information hasn’t helped these courageous men and women; if anything, it’s led to speedier attacks on them, often permitting them no place to hide. In twenty or thirty years will any artist still be around willing to question the status quo?
It’s hard to imagine how Sansal’s novel, Harraga, could be more hard hitting about life in Algeria, more damning of what it means to be a young Algerian with no options for the future. The title itself, Harraga, means path-burner, “those who burned their bridges, who fled the country on makeshift rafts and destroyed their papers when caught.” Apparently, it’s that common a practice: “Better to die elsewhere than to live here!” one character remarks. There’s a lengthy passage in the novel imagining the journey of harragas, who trek hundreds of miles across the desert in order to find a better way of life in some other country. But the author’s sad summation is that about all that’s happened is that these people, “the harragas have invented new ways of dying.” The “TV beams back the pictures of corpses lying broken on the rocks, or tossed by the waves, frozen or suffocated in the cargo hold of a boat, a plane, in the back of a refrigerated van.” Yes, new ways of dying. You have to be at the end of your rope to take such risk.
Surprisingly, the main character in the novel is a middle-aged female doctor, named Lamia—not someone on the run. She describes herself as haunted by the souls of the past, “a poor forsaken woman,” who—though thirty-five years old—has the wrinkles of a woman aged sixty. Even her position as a pediatrician came about as a bit of an accident when her predecessor, a man, suddenly left the hospital where she worked in a lesser position. Her parents and her older brother are dead; her much younger brother, Sofiane, has run away, following the lot of the harragas. She’s all alone in the decaying family home, in Algiers, living with the ghosts of her past.
All this changes with a knock on her door, the arrival of a pregnant sixteen-year-old, named Chérifa. She’s come from Oran, where she knew Sofiane. Lamia imagines a conversation the two of them must have had, what Sofiane told Chérifa: “Go to my sister Lamia. She has a big house, there’ll be a room for you and a cot for the baby. She’s a doctor, so you won’t lack for medicine. She’s old and she’s prickly as a cactus, but that will be good for the child, it will keep him on the straight and narrow. I’m off to Tangier to look for a ship.”
The fact is, Chérifa is six months along. She looks and acts like a pregnant whirling dervish, dressed in colorful “flounces and frills [that] make it look like a drag outfit for a family of screaming queens.” Messed up hair, too much make-up, “her perfume could rival the fallout from Chernobyl.” She takes over Lamia’s house, strewing her belongings everywhere, a small noise machine that totally unsettles her host, who can’t wait for the girl to leave, even though she’s certain that Sofiane has gotten her pregnant. If he won’t accept his responsibility, she will.
Lamia can’t wait for Chérifa to leave, but once that happens, she misses her terribly, and she realizes that the young woman has brought life to a dead house. Days, weeks, months pass as Lamia searchers for the girl in Algiers, learning that Chérifa has infused the lives of others with her zest for living. More than anything, she wants Chérifa’s love, and she eventually realizes that she has begun to look at the younger woman as the daughter she never had. It’s a painful realization, fraught with fears that Algerian men will abuse Chérifa as they abuse all Algerian women.
In the process of venting her fears and anxieties about what has happened to the younger woman, Lamia brings up the deep-seated roles between men and women that will trap Chérifa throughout her life. “I learned all there was to know about the Arab-Islamic economy: at work just like at home, the men chat and the women toil and there’s no rest on Sunday for anyone. My married colleagues, mothers with children, daughters-in-law with mothers-in-law, work a forty-eight hour day, with twelve hours in arrears that count double as soon as the grandchildren arrive….” Worse, Lamia worries that “the green plague of Islamofascism knows no borders. One day, girls will be burned in towns across California, I can just see it, and it won’t be the work of the Ku Klux Klan.”
The resolution of Boualem Sansal’s Harraga is disturbing but also cathartic (at least for Lamia). I’m impressed by the author’s ability to crawl into the psyches of his two female characters, no easy achievement. I’m not so certain about Frank Wynne’s translation, filled with Western jargon. Would Lamia use such terms as “to hell in a handcart,” “a pain in the neck,” “it blew our minds,” and “psychobabble”? Perhaps, but some of these remarks (and many others) seem out of joint for an isolated, Algerian spinster, even if she does have access to satellite TV and Western media.
Still, it can’t be easy for a writer who clearly loves his country to suggest that that country is a prison for many of its citizens. Or is it the other way around? Only the artist who loves his country so dearly can dare to write about it so critically. Harraga is a bold novel, written by a writer who refuses to be intimidated.
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Trans. By Frank Wynne
Bloomsbury, 276 pp., $26
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.