Harraga: Boulem Sansal
Lamia, the narrator of Algerian writer Boualem Sansals’ Harraga lives alone in a crumbling colonial mansion in the old parts of Algiers, working as a pediatrician by day and communing at night with the ghosts who inhabit the mansion. Her parents and older brother have died, and her younger brother Sofiane has become a harraga, a path-burner – one who risks his life attempting to flee the country for a better life elsewhere.
Lamia’s tranquil, ordered existence turns upside down when a sixteen-year-old stranger Cherifa knocks on her door in the middle of the night. Cherifa is unmarried, pregnant and completely unafraid and innocent in her ways. She wears loud clothes and oveg perfumes and doesn’t play by any of society’s rules. Lamia takes her in because Sofiane had sent her, but soon enough Lamia develops a maternal affection for this lost child who would be a mother soon. In Cherifa’s innocent and defiant ways Lamia finds an echo of her own resentment against the excesses of the Islamists who rule Algeria now. Lamia tries to bond with Cherifa and show her around the town. But Cherifa is really child-like in her curiosity and playfulness with no concern for her personal safety or the consequences of her action. She befriends dubious and dangerous characters like the ‘ Bluebeard’ and goes off on strange adventures. So when Cherfia goes missing from Lamia’s house for the second time, it surely is something to worry about. Lamia goes looking for her in real earnest, which leads us to the poignant but not totally unpredictable end of the novel.
The novel unfolds as one long monologue by Lamia and that is one of its biggest failings. Lamia herself is sketchily delineated and we cannot form a clear picture of her in our minds. Often she reacts to a situation by finding parallels with films like ‘ Not Without My Daughter’, ‘The Mission’ and ‘Gremlins’, narrating the story lines of these films in detail, robbing her voice of realism and authenticity. It seems like it’s the author rather than Lamia who is speaking. At another time she plays a series of records to Cherifa – from Rachmaninoff to fado and other local forms of music. Lamia tells us , ‘I put on some classic Aznavour, then Pardes singing fado that could level a granite mountain, then something by Malek, the Franco-Moroccan singer, then Idir, the Franco-Algerian singer, and seeing that even this was new to her ears, I slipped an old, scratched vinyl disc on to my battered old record player.’ Then she goes on, quite pointlessly, to narrate the story being sung in this ballad called ‘ The Whore and The Flautist’. It is quite incredible for Lamia to be a fan of such a wide range of films, music and books. Her social and cultural background is so ill-defined and inconsistent that Lamia remains a contrived narrative device rather than a real character. The other characters too, including Cherifa, are drawn in similar broad strokes and do not appear any more real. The novel is interspersed by many snippets of poetry which are neither very moving nor helpful in illuminating the situation being depicted.
The monologue format also results in poor storytelling. Instead of being shown we are merely told – about the characters, about the happenings. We never get to see Cherifa meeting all those different people and talking with them. It is always through some other person’s account that we learn about what happened. This is so frustrating and unsatisfying. A more conventional storytelling weaved around actual action and interaction between characters would have served the novel’s purpose better.
If Sansal’s craft fails in telling a gripping tale, it fares no better in presenting us a meaningful commentary on the political situation in present-day Algeria. The multi-cultural history of Algeria is alluded to but never depicted. The author, through the voice of the narrator, demonizes the Islamists, charging them with inhumanity and misogyny, but no concrete examples of this is presented. None of our lead characters, including Lamia or Cherifa, are affected by the excesses of the Islamists in the course of the story we are bring told. It effect, we are being asked to take the author on his words, which is simply not done…not in a novel.
There was a very good story in the world of the cantankerous 35 year old spinster Lamia in a self-imposed exile in the backwaters of Algiers colliding with the pregnant 16 year old Cherifa, a ‘walking scandal who has somehow inexplicably escaped the wrath of Allah’, which could have been used to offer an oblique commentary on the oppressive political and social climate of Algeria under the Islamists. But it needed a novelist’s assured craftsmanship which Sansal clearly does not possess.
(This was originally published in the Sunday Book Review section of the Deccan Herald.)
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