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Forging a path for hope

Published Aug. 28, 2005

The Lovers of Algeria

By Anouar Benmalek, translated by Joanna Kilmartin

In the late 1990s, Algeria was as dangerous for Westerners as Baghdad is today. A bloody civil war erupted in the wake of botched elections and upward of 150,000 people lost their lives. The government cracked down on fundamentalists _ whom the military had blocked from taking power _ and the fundamentalists responded by abducting or killing those they viewed as traitors. This included anyone from the Western world.

One can understand how baffled Algerians would be, then, by the spectacle of a 65-year-old Swiss woman meandering through downtown Algiers without a map or a guide or even a tangible sense of fear. This is how we meet Anna, the hero of Anouar Benmalek's novel, The Lovers of Algeria, which was a runaway bestseller in France and perhaps the most significant novel to come out of the country since Camus' early writings.

Anna is indeed a tough and unflappable woman. She is also on a mission. Decades earlier, National Liberation Front (FLN) revolutionaries had abducted her husband _ whom they suspected of treason _ and had killed her two children. As she nears old age, Anna has come back to say one last goodbye. She wants to find their graves.

The Lovers of Algeria weaves two narratives around a larger theme. The first thread follows the story of Anna's romance with Nassreddine, whom she met and married in the '50s after she was fired from a traveling circus. Anna, a trapeze artist, will need all of her balancing skills to pull off a romance with an Arab man during a time of terrifying random violence.

The second thread begins in 1997, the year Anna loses her second husband and makes a pilgrimage back to Algiers. Everyone from hotel clerks to street people tells her to go home, that she is not safe there. "The devil has entered our country, and his hoofprints are everywhere," says one man. "No atrocity is too horrible for these madmen to contemplate. They're quite capable of cutting up their fathers and mothers while sipping their morning coffee."

Benmalek, the author, was born in Algeria and founded the Algerian Committee against Torture in 1988. It's clear he has seen some gruesome acts of violence, for The Lovers of Algeria is sprinkled with numbing descriptions of car bombs and beheadings, summary executions and throat cuttings. The violence is spectacular, but so frequent it becomes mundane. At least that's how the Algerians presented here view it; to admit fear is one step closer to letting it take over one's life.

Anna finds an unlikely protector in a 9-year-old boy named Jallal, who has run away from home and makes a living selling peanuts and cigarettes in downtown Algiers. At first, Jallal insults the old woman in Arabic, thinking she does not understand. Later, she hires him as a guide to take her into the hills, and he accepts her generous forgiveness. Homeless and parentless, Jallal protects her as if she were family.

Shuffling between these two narratives, Benmalek presents a prismatic, if didactic, view of his country's history over the past 50 years. It took Algeria 10 years to overthrow its French colonizers, but then the country inflicted upon itself the same kind of torture perpetuated by its foreign occupiers.

At times, Anna and Nassreddine's story seems to exist solely so Benmalek can tell us about Algeria _ to explain its history of violence and to show the way to hope. It seems impossible, though, that Benmalek could have told this story any other way. The social context he provides makes Anna and Nassreddine's romance all the more doomed, the relationship between Jallal and Anna gives us all the more reason for hope. Fiction should never be a kind of political wish fulfillment, but when scripted powerfully, it can imagine the impossible. In this searing and important tale, Anouar Benmalek has done just that. It is now up to his countrymen to live up to their part of the bargain.

"The Lovers of Algeria: A Novel," by Anouar Benmalek, translated by Joanna Kilmartin, Graywolf Press, $16, 288 pages.

John Freeman is a writer in New York.