Monday, 28 April 2014

Dead Man's Share by Yasmina Khadra - Book Review

In the Algerian-authors-who-write-detective-novels league, Yasmina Khadra has to be top man. It pains me to say this I must confess, not because interviews have put the spotlight only on his egocentric traits making him a rather indigestible character, but because of the sheer Russian- roulette-style of his work.  I’ve often wondered, how can a man write so outstandingly well (see his work’s crown-jewel L'Olympe des infortunes, 2010), and in parallel write so shockingly badly (see the abysmal L’Attentat translated in EN by John Cullen as The Attack). These manic up-and-down literary turns leave me baffled, but admittedly, keep me interested.  

This aside, he never fails in the detective fiction genre. His very enjoyable and well-netted Inspector Llob series can't be put down. The central theme of Khadra’s detective stories is corruption within the police force and politics, and he explores how these corrupted worlds both merge, clash, and merge again, thereby putting his finger on the very pulse of how the regime functions in reality. Recently, he added another layer to include corruption in the Algerian media in What are Monkeys waiting for, with a new lead character, a woman-and-lesbian Algerian detective.

In Deadman’s share, Superintendent Brahim Llob is bored out of his mind in a seemingly crimeless Algiers. Boredom makes him irritable and the latest antics of his partner Lino, a handsome and promising young guy from the popular area Bab El Oued, are also beginning to unnerve him, both because Lino is getting out of control, no longer showing up for work, and because he suspects Lino is getting entrapped by his latest catch, a woman whose identity no one even dares to guess.

To try and lift his spirits, Llob pays a visit to Allouche, an old friend and former psychiatrist, once a great intellectual the regime crushed (he was kidnapped and horrendously tortured), and who now resides in a mental hospital. When Llob gets there, Allouche has a favour to ask: a presidential grace is about to let loose a serial killer. He begs Llob to tail the man that state institutions have named SNP because his real identity was never established.

SNP turns out to be more than an explosive case. Long ago, at the dawn of post-independence, the Algerian maquisard The Left-Handed was planning his next move: to take over his village’s land and production - post-independence also meant the country was now up for grabs. In the night of 12 to 13 August 1962, he orders his Henchmen to drive the Talbi family and two others into a forest and has them brutally murdered. Over the years, the Left-Handed’s ferocity propulsed him to the highest spheres of power. He is now one of the most influential generals of the Algerian regime, seen only in Algiers' most select areas, and accompanied by the most beautiful of women. One of these women is none other than Lino's latest catch.

While the Left-Handed is preparing revenge for an affront committed by what he defines as trash from Bab el Oued, little does he know both History and someone else's revenge are about to find him and make him pay for that fatal August night in 1962, during which, unbeknown to anyone present, one Talbi child escaped.

Dead Man's Share was translated from the original French La Part du Mort by Aubrey Botsford, a Llob mystery published in 2004. 

A trois degrés vers l'Est by Chawki Amari - Book Review

A trois degré vers l’est (Three degrees East) is Chawki Amari's second short-story collection, and was published in 2008 by Chihab editions.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Nationale 1 by Chawki Amari - Book Review

Chawki Amari published his novel Nationale 1 (Highway 1) in 2007.

In it, he recounts the story of Kalim and his car Taos, both leaving Algiers to go and see Boudjemaa. He heads to In Guezzam, Algeria's furthest point South knowing that "Boudjem3a is not waiting in In Guezzam".

Nationale 1 is also the story of Algeria, and the magic of its topography.

Algeria is around 2,4 million km2. It is the 11th biggest country in the world. North-South, it begins from a coastal area with its toes in the Mediterranean, continues South, past the Tropic of Cancer, further than NATO's geographic limits for member countries, and finishes at In Guezzam, because, once upon a time, not so long ago, the coloniser's ball pen marked a spot on a map, to keep to himself underground water resources, otherwise rare in the area.

Algeria's topographic variety is bewildering. Its upper area is contoured by the sea, its lower body by the third largest desert on earth. Algeria is made of rivers and lakes, mountains and ranges, valleys and steppes, forests and vales, oasis, plateaus, highlands. Natural groundwater sources and heavens (literally the name for gardens, jnan) are its beauty spots. And deserts. A plural noun that covers 85% of the surface, that encompasses many a type: sand deserts, rock deserts. And there are over twenty different names for dunes.

Algeria's first highway, the Nationale 1 (Highway 1) crosses through it all. It begins in Algiers at Bir Mourad Rais, and ends in In Guezzam, 30 km away from Assamakka in Niger. It stretches straight across 2,430 km. Chawki Amaris tells us that it is as if you began a journey from Kansas at the Oklahoma border, and ended in Mexico. Or turned your car keys and engine on, in Syria and ended at the northernmost point of Yemen.

2.4 million km2. It is the size of 5 European countries, 700 million football fields, 400 billion parking spaces to park 400 billion Algerian cars that a potential 37.9 million Algerians may one day own, babies and all.

Going straight down. Or up? Algiers is set at around 224m above see level and In Guezzam at around 400 m. When Northerners say they are going South they say they are going down, when Southerners say they are going North they say they are going down. "An arbitrary but fixed convention that does not exist in space" Amari says.

Algeria's toponymy in the North is essentially anthroponymic, areas there bear the name of the first individual who has been attached to a place, or has claimed it. In the South, toponymy is essentially hydronymic and oronymic*, Touaregs looking for water and pasture gave areas the name that indicated their propensity to one or another.

East-West. 1,000 km separate Ghazaouet from Tebessa. 1,800 km between Tindouf and Djanet. North South. 1,600 km between Wahran and Bordj Badji Mokhtar. From Annaba to Tin Zaouten 1,900 km.

Between Algiers and In Guezzam there are 2,000 km, that is 2,500 km by road.

400 is a recurrent number in the Sahara, Amari tells us.

400 km between Ghardaia and El Meni3a. 400 km between El Meni3a and In Salah. 400 km between Timimoun and El Meni3a, 400 km between Tamarasset and Djanet, between Illizi and Djanet. 400 km between Adrar and Bechar.

Why 400? It is an odd thing that 400 is an old counting unit. A caravan or a camel can cross 40 km per day over 10 days, 10 days being the average journey time in the Sahara.

These are the magical stories about Algeria's topography that Chawki Amari's main character tells us during his magical journey south.

Chawki Amari is a prolific Algerian journalist and novelist, based in Algeria. He has been publishing novels and short-story collections since 1996. His continues to write daily columns for the national newspaper El Watan. His column is titled Point Zero. He is a francophone writer.

*See the work of Brahim Ataoui, 'Algeria's greatest toponymist', says Chawki Amari (p.52)

Monday, 21 April 2014

Intrigue at Sidi Fredj by Khaled Mandi - Book Review

It's the end of the day, and a taxieur last fare forgets her bag in the car. Next morning, he goes back to the address to return the bag to the woman. For this, he doesn’t expect to spend seven months in jail.

It was not Mourad's unsuspicious nature that sent him to El Harrach’s 7 Hectares jail, it was the unpretentious belief he’d been struck by love at first sight by Farida as he drove her to her parents’ home. Farida, though, had been murdered 18 months previously, and had long been buried. 

While investigating a crime that wasn’t one, and a murder that never took place, Mourad discovers that Farida is in fact Ghislaine, a twin born in Algeria and stolen away by a gang trafficking babies just before Algeria’s independence.

In Intrigue at Sidi Fredj, Khaled Mandi tells a tale in an Enid-Blyton-style that plays with djinns, ghosts, folklore, the reality of jail life, inmates’ solidarity and a crushing Algerian justice system.

Should Mandi have closed the story after Mourad discovers a pre-independence child trafficking gang? Yup. So far so great despite the writing’s school-like style. But Mourad can't stop and rest, Mandi forces his character to continue hunting for his love at first sight, to avoid marrying his cousin. And this is when the story becomes the reenactment of a bizarre teenage wet dream. Mourad decides to work 2 years flat to buy enough foreign currency and a visa to France so he can find a (very) accommodating French girlfriend and move in her bed, in the space of a 12-hour conversation on Christmas eve to marry her papers

Should Mandi have closed the story after Mourad comes back to Algeria with his new bride and finally marries her according to the 'proper' rites and a massive party to celebrate his catch? Yup. But Mandi continues with two anecdotes, one when Mourad is going to the local Imam because his French-but-Algerian wife doesn't want to fast, and another by Mandi's grandfather (why?) about life's scars and how they can save lives.

Should Mandi have closed the story after these two anecdotes that have nothing to do with why you picked up the book in the first place? Yup. But Mandi clearly loves writing and in the height of enjoyment he just can't stop. He continues on with a summary of his next novel's first and second part plus three axis quotes.

If you decide to read Intrigue at Sidi Fredj, do, it’s quite enjoyable, just stop of page 102.

Intrigue a Sidi Fredj is a book by Khaled Mandi published by Editions Mazola Communication in 2012, written in French. 160 pages.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

8 days left before Election Day - 8 bets to place

Only 8 days before Election day and a new president will be born from its ashes like the 100 year-old phoenix. The event is treated by people like the ghost of a village clown that everybody knows and ignores. An election, in theory and practice, is the time when power holders pretend to dialogue with people. Power holders don't fancy doing that here, possibly never have since independence, but hey, the media have got to make a living so they're doing the dialogue all among themselves. People, as per usual, are completely ignored, and they give it back so well. 

No matter, we can still have some fun and some British fun: bets! C'mon. Roll the dice.

9 April – How many public letters are in the mix?

Public letters from a variety of Algerian personalities abound these days in the press. Love mail. Hate mail. Especially content-poor mail. The spaghetti Western between Benouari and Hanoune continues in a face-off fashion. Ali Benouari’s latest challenge to Hanoune: you’ve got 10 days to write or… I’ll write back.

10 April – Who will Sellal insult next? 

It would seem that only his own person is left on the list.

11 April - Where is Algeria’s Texas?

Tlemcen was hailed as the capital of Islamic Culture in 2011. In 2015, Constantinawill be celebrated as the capital of Arab culture. Algiers will soon become a new Mecca with the Grand Mosque and its world tallest minaret, with an opening scheduled in 2015. Now, Mascara has been promised the sore fate of becoming Algeria’s California. When all the barrels are counted… where is Algeria’s Texas?

12 April - In which building entrance will Nekkaz get stuck in Bab el Oued?

The non-presidential candidate Rachid Nekkaz continues his travels around various cities and regions of Algeria taking selfies. His planned visit to Bab El Oued’s Atlas Hall area last Saturday was a lot more confined that he’d planned for. The interior of Bab El Oued’s Atlas Hall was booked for Bouteflika’s campaign director Abdelmalek Sellal. The exterior of Bab El Oued’s Atlas Hall was also booked... by Sellal’s police protection. This only left Nekkaz with a small spot in a building’s entrance facing the Hall. Undeterred, he promises to be back on Saturday 12 April, this time round, facing the sea.

13 April - Will the President be standing in another television appearance and for how long?

14 April - "Can you spot your leader"?

Almost two weeks since Brussels’ EU-African summit held on 2 and 3 April, and which counted Algeria as a member, at least on paper, to discuss the future of people's nations, or something. No one seems to care nationally. Internationally, BBC Africa seemed the most interested in engaging with people on this subject and asked "can you spot your DZ leader"? Well, can you?

15- Will Algeria's press publish photos of protests picturing other people than Barakat’s four members?

Protests and marches, small in number but large in spirit and media coverage, are likely to continue until 17 April but who gets photographed in these peaceful protests? Demos in Bejaia offer some fresh faces alledgedly committing crimes against public property. Photos of marches planned from 15 April might actually show people peacefully screaming their frustration.

16- After Barakat, and Barra, will a shorter protest movement’s name be born?

Barra (Out!) is a protest movement calling for demos in and from Paris. Will a four-letter movement follow?

17- Will bigger than XXL-size posters of the next President be printed and where will they be displayed?

XXL size posters of the current President have been hung on buildings around the country. How much bigger than these XXL size can the flanks of Algerian buildings take when the future President's turn come?

Post 17-April? 

Will post-17 April be like pre-17 April? A clear definition of what pre-17 April was would first need to be put down, perhaps even agreed upon, and this has not yet been done. The question remains what will post-17 April be like? But mostly. Who cares…