The Star of Algiers, by Aziz Chouaki, trans Ros Schwartz & Lulu Norman

Politics and pop in an age of hysteria
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The Independent Culture

Algerian playwright and novelist Aziz Chouaki's gripping mix of politics, poetry and pop makes this novel a compulsive read. He starts The Star Of Algiers by conjuring an unsettling image to describe the rise of religious fundamentalism in Algiers in the 1990s. "Dark and spreading, a veil obscures the face of the sky, a grim mask covering the sun's eyes."

It is under this ominous sky that Moussa Massy, a kabyle singer, is trying to make a go of his life. More than anything, he wants to be a pop star, but at 36 he's no teenager. Moussa lives in three rooms with 13 members of his family on a housing estate described in Chouaki's staccato photographic prose as "brutal buildings mired in mountains of refuse".

Here, he shares a room with his two brothers. The oldest spends his time reading thrillers and smoking Marlboros (later we learn that he was tortured), while the youngest is involved with the fundamentalist Islamic Group the FIS. This group are successfully recruiting the many unemployed young men who hang around the estate getting high on zombretto - a concoction of ethanol and grenadine syrup. All of the brothers want to get out.

This is certainly not the Algiers beloved of Camus, with its gentle swallows, orange blossom and blue skies. Yet Moussa is so spirited and narcissistic, as he hops between puddles of filth in the new shoes he bought on the black market, that this reader really hoped his dreams would come true. They almost do.

When he gets a break singing in a flash nightclub, he thrills his audience with his fusion of Arab and African melodies mixed with American pop. His music is a hybrid of old and new. This is what modernity means to Moussa. It promises other things, too: a chance to earn his living with his talents; to live with his fiancée in his own apartment.

Just as it looks as if it's all going right, the FIS win the elections. On the morning of their victory, Moussa goes out onto the balcony and sees "hordes of bearded young men in kamis, thousands of them, in the grip of hysteria".

The city becomes corrupt, violent. Moussa is stopped by cops for wearing flamboyant clothes and beaten up. He is sacked from the club. As his career begins to disintegrate, so do Moussa's hopes.

The end is truly shocking. Chouaki's very believable narrative demonstrates how the legacy of colonialism, flattening poverty and having nothing left to lose in life creates human beings who are prepared to do desperate things. Translated so eloquently from French by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman, this is an irreverent, witty novel that manages to be deceptively light-hearted.

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