"This place is not worth living in," Jallal, the nine-year old orphan who spends his days on the streets selling peanuts and rummaging through garbage dumps, cries out again and again. His is a life of poverty and misery-a hard, sordid life, unfitting of a child. But Jallal lives in Algeria and in Algeria-at least the one that Anouar Benmalek recreates in his unflinchingly brutal The Lovers of Algeria where someone is tortured, beheaded, raped, mutilated, or eaten every other page or so-hardly anyone fares well, not least the two main protagonists, Nassreddine and Anna. The lovers' painful saga unfolds over the span of some seventy years (1928-97). It encompasses not only Algeria's own turbulent times-from living under French colonialism to claiming independence only to fall into the hands of equally ruthless rulers: the "terrorists," i.e. the Islamists-but also the world's major historical events. Anna's troubles begin years before she lands in Algeria with her circus troop. As a child, she suffered the loss of her mother who was expelled from Switzerland, where the family lived, because she was German (her Swiss father does little to prevent her departure). In Algeria, she waits in vain for the release of her Jewish surrogate mother Rina, whom she met when she ran away from home and joined the circus group as a small girl. It is there and then that she meets Nassreddine. Though their initial encounters are antagonistic, fate eventually pulls them together-and then, tragically, apart.
Jumping back and forth between past and present, the novel opens in 1955, the climacteric year in the couple's lives. An unimaginably cruel murder takes place, bringing an end to Anna and Nassreddine's brief marriage. When we encounter them again, more than forty years have passed. Anna, who is now an elderly woman, has returned to Algeria-a hostile Algeria where tourists are as welcome as a sharp stick in the eye-in search of closure and tries to reunite with Nassreddine who, we learn, leads a lonesome, sad-old-man's life. She stubbornly embarks on her mad venture, for which she enlists young Jallal's help. Down-and-out Jallal is all too eager to assist the old woman, lured by her promise of generous financial retribution. Though Jallal is all too aware of the danger of his mission, he couldn't possibly have predicted just how badly things would turn out. The series of unfortunate events that befall Anna and Nassreddine as they attempt to reach one another-not to mention the violence recounted by the people that they meet along the way-is so incredibly horrible and relentless that it is hard to stomach more than a few pages in one go. And yet, it is equally difficult to abandon the book entirely. Benmalek's eloquent and engaging prose-which is masterfully translated by Joanna Kilmartin-and his clever, puzzle-like narrative construction pull the reader back in, over and over. Ultimately, the payback is a multi-faceted portrait (Benmalek painstakingly gives a voice to every participant: the colonialists, the police, the citizens, the mujahideen, the natives and the foreigners) of a country and a people forced to endure so much violence.
Nana Asfour works at the New Yorker and writes about the Middle East. Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure and ARTnews.