Sunday, 25 October 2015

Complot a Alger by Ahmed Gasmia - Book Review

Yacine and Adel are two old friends on their way to work. Yacine, the dreamer of the two, works for a museum in Algiers about to get closed because of lack of funds. He is on his way to a difficult meeting with the museum director, Mr Yousfi, an old and gentle man desperately trying to save the museum. Adel, always cautious and down to earth, works in a bank and promises to try and think of something that might raise some funds.

The two friends meet after work to go and grab a bite to eat but Yacine receives a phonecall from Yousfi who asks him to come urgently. The Minister of Culture's decision regarding the museum's affairs is about to fall: it will be closed and not even a private venture can save it. Yacine and Adel make their way to the museum, where Yacine goes off to meet with Yousfi, while Adel waits for them and wanders off in the various private rooms usually closed to public view.

He enters a fully furnished medieval style bedroom, hangs his coat on a hook off the wall, and lies down to rest on the massive four-poster bed. As he drifts off, his coat comes smashing down on the floor. Too heavy, it brought the ancient hook down and leaves a gapping hole. Adel is thoroughly embarrassed and wonders what to do when he notices something inside the cavity. He grapples with what seems to be a box and pulls it out. He finds two stones and a vial. As he opens the vial, a little cloud of dust is let loose, and when it falls onto the two stones, something completely unexpected occurs: the stones shine a green light that slowly grows and reveals The Gate. The Gate cracks open and sucks Adel into another time: 17th century Algiers.

Mansour, the Dey of Algiers, manipulated by his Commander-in-chief Abass, has just imprisoned his beloved cousin, Sheikh Hisham, accusing him of plotting murder against his person. Little does the Dey know that Abass is the culprit and that he has a much grander plan than to set Sheikh Hisham aside. He wants to be Dey and is about to murder Mansour during the yearly celebration of his kingship. As Adel is propulsed into time and into the same room, the Dey's former castle, he hears Abass conspire and knows the exact details of the murder to come.

Will the Dey believe Adel? Will Sheikh Hisham aided by his faithful men escape prison? Will The Gate open again and let Adel come back to 20th century Algiers? Will Yacine find the money to save his beloved museum?

Conspiracy in Algiers (Complot a Alger) is Ahmed Gasmia's first novel. It is not a detective novel per se but only incorporate elements of the genre. Gasmia's latest, and second, Shadow 67 (Ombre 67) is a novel that directly fits the detective novel genre. 

As for Shadow 67, Gasmia has found inspiration in Algeria's medieval past. I record it here because in Conspiracy in Algiers, Gasmia weaves an element into his story that I haven't come across too many times before elsewhere in early 2000 Algerian literary production (not so far in my readings at any rate): it is sci-fi or fantasy. Time-travel is central to this novel, and magic gives the story life. I've only encountered Sci-fi once before, in a work entirely built on science-fiction, by the pioneer of the genre in Algeria, and a woman at that: Safia Ketou and her Mauve Planet.

Complot à Alger is an enjoyable read. If translated it would make a great YA novel, like Shadow 67. I did find both a bit chaste, a recurrent trait to the Algerian detective novels of the 70s and early 80s I've encountered. I'm pretty certain that although Gasmia published it in 2006 and 2007, he'd written it at least a decade ago. If I ever meet him, I'll ask!

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