Harraga by Boualem Sansal - book review: Powerful exposé of Islamism marred by weak storytelling

Translated from French by Frank Wynne

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The Independent Culture

Context is vital when reviewing books. Political climate, risks taken by the author, the sequelae of publication – these can all be as important as the more traditional criteria used to judge writing.

Boualem Sansal, an Algerian writer, was dismissed from his government post in 2003 for criticising official policy. He turned to writing, but in 2006 his books were banned for the same reason. He has won several international writing awards, although the prize money for the Arabic novel of the year in 2012 was revoked after Sansal attended the Jerusalem Writers’ Festival. He continues to live in Algeria despite considerable personal risk.

Much of Sansal’s work has condemned the rise of Islamist extremism in Algeria. His novel An Unfinished Business explored the similarities between Nazism and extremist Islam. Harraga, published in French in 2006, explores Islamism and its treatment of women.

The novel is set in an Algiers in 2001, when Islamist patrols roamed the streets, sermonisers warned of the fate of apostates, and street stalls sold posters of Bin Laden alongside those of Madonna. The first-person narrator is a paediatrician called Lamia who lives alone. Her parents and older brother have died, and her younger brother Sofiane is among the harragas, or path-burners, who have fled the country in search of better prospects abroad. A garishly dressed pregnant teenager, Cherifa, appears at Lamia’s door, and Lamia develops maternal feelings for her. When she disappears, Lamia is determined to find her, knowing the risks faced by a stroppy girl wearing defiantly western clothes.

The novel’s weakness is that almost everything is narrated via Lamia’s monologue, from her conversations with Cherifa, through the treatment of women in Islam and the previous occupants of her house, to the hazards of a harraga’s journey. I frequently longed to be shown and not told, and found Lamia a tiresome storyteller. I wanted to know more about her personal life, the lost love she mentioned in passing. She felt like a device for narration, rather than a fully fleshed female character.

Still, the failings of the novel are secondary to the importance of writers in countries with poor human rights records speaking out. The 70 journalists murdered by Algerian Islamists in the Nineties would applaud Sansal. Frank Wynne’s translation is generally excellent, converting the French to a convincing monologue complete with clichés.