Customer Reviews: The Lovers of Algeria: A Novel (Lannan Translation Selection (Graywolf Paperback))
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on September 5, 2014
It’s the war for Independence by the Arabs against France in the 1950’s. That’s a bad time for a French-Swiss woman, a circus acrobat, to fall in love with and marry an Arab man. They will both be under suspicion and hated by both side in the conflict. (I’m reminded of another book I reviewed, The Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte, where a Serbian-Croatian couple doesn’t survive the Serb-Croat conflict). And of course it happens: he is captured and tortured by the French under suspicion of Arab terrorism (even though he was not involved in the conflict). Their two children are brutally killed and she is deported from Algeria. Assuming her husband is dead, like her children, she flees back to Europe, begins a new life, remarries and has a son.

That’s where our story begins. Years later, the woman, now a widow in her sixties with an adult son, returns to Algeria; back to the on-going unrest. It’s unsafe for women, especially a European woman traveling alone. Is she insane? she asks herself. She tells her son that she is vacationing in Egypt. She seeks out her former husband to find out if he is dead or alive. She dons a burka as a disguise and finds a partner to help her navigate the conflict and the rural villages – a ten-year old street urchin with whom she develops a grandmotherly relationship. Translated from the French; lots of local color of rural and urban Algeria, and a good read.
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Opening in 1955, when the French are battling insurgents for control of Algeria, Anna, a Swiss resident and former circus performer, and Nassreddine, a Berber from the mountains of Algeria, travel by bus from a remote mountain village to Algiers to formalize their marriage. As the bus makes its way through the countryside, it is stopped by French soldiers, and Nassreddine is arrested, taken to jail, and tortured unmercifully. Anna is forced to go on to the village without him, but when Nassreddine finally escapes and makes his way back, he finds his mother's house empty.

Alternating back and forth in time, author Benmalek traces the lives of Anna and Nassreddine and their parents, separately and together, for seventy years, in the process giving the political and social history of Algeria. Whether under the rule of the French in the 1950s or the Algerian Liberation Front (FLN), which defeated them, ordinary citizens live lives fraught with danger. Armed Islamic fundamentalists, which fought both the French and the Liberation Front for control of the population in the 1950s, have, by 1997 become a major force. Torture, murders, mutilations, and executions, for which the French were condemned, have continued into the 1990s.

Into this atmosphere of civil war in 1996, Anna, now in her sixties, returns to Algiers from Switzerland in search of Nassreddine. Hiring Jallal, a nine-year-old orphan who sells peanuts and individual cigarettes to act as a translator, and wearing a traditional haik, she is determined to make her way back to Nassreddine's home village, the place they had always agreed to use as their common contact point. Anna's story alternates with that of Nassreddine and moves back and forth in time as both try to reach the village.

This story of a great love that crosses boundaries is not for the faint of heart. As the lives of Anna and Nassreddine, Jallal (the boy-translator), their parents, and their friends come to life, the reader is exposed to unimaginable horrors. Though the novel is melodramatic, it is not melodrama for the sake of false emotion. Life in Algeria is tenuous at best, survival seems almost accidental, and everyone is a pawn of someone else. The ending will not satisfy all readers, but it is consistent with the demonstrated fragility of life throughout the novel. Dramatic, horrifying, sensuously descriptive, but offering no promises of a glorious future, the novel is a grim reminder that when governments do not protect individuals, love and understanding are all that is left to give meaning to life. Mary Whipple
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on July 26, 2012
This one was a pleasant surprise. It's not great literature, but it proved to be an enjoyable story with some redeeming social value, and my expectations were not high (you just never know with obscure translations).

The Lovers of Algeria follows a star-crossed couple--Anna, a Swiss acrobat who initially travels to Algeria in the early 1940s, and Nassreddine, an Algerian man--through most of the 20th century. The timeline jumps back and forth, and while I was at first annoyed when I'd been reading about the 1990s, reached page 90 (where it jumps to the 1920s) and realized most of the rest of the book was backstory, it actually works out pretty well and turned out to be a more compelling story than I expected. The characters themselves are all right--adequate for their roles, and there's some complexity to their relationships (the central romance is imperfect), but they're not especially memorable.

Aside from telling a good story, this book is most memorable for its portrayal of the upheaval and violence in 20th century Algeria--a country struggling with first colonialism, then terrorism, not to mention poverty and a lack of resources to deal with its problems. It's from the perspective of average people, so it doesn't provide a high-level explanation of policy; instead we get an on-the-ground view of what life is like for civilians just struggling to get by amidst the instability and violence. And Benmalek manages to do this without being simplistic or too sentimental; the world of the book feels three-dimensional. It's an ugly place, so readers just looking for romance may want to skip this one, but it gives real beyond-the-headlines insight into what people caught between terrorists and an ineffective government have to deal with.

While I found it a worthwhile read, though, and sped through most of it in a single day, there were a lot of little annoyances that together bring it down to 3 stars. The timeline doesn't add up (Anna apparently ran off with the circus four years before she was born). The use of the present tense is inconsistent, and even more jarring in a book that jumps back and forth in time. There are a lot of exclamation points in the narration, and sometimes it's unclear who is speaking. Benmalek obsessively describes women's sexual characteristics, even when writing from their own perspectives. The ending almost seems to be missing a paragraph or two--it just ends, without telling us what the characters plan to do next.

And, perhaps most unfortunate of all, two or three major character decisions struck me as terribly implausible. For instance, Anna and Nassreddine's relationship begins with a contrived romance-novel-style scenario, in which even though he's a virtual stranger and she has no intention of having a sexual relationship, she decides to leave the circus and move into his one-room hut (just the two of them) so she can be available for a friend. Um, right.

That said, if you can put up with a few eyebrow-raising scenarios, it is an engaging story, and the translation is fluidly written. Recommended for those interested in learning more about Algeria, or those who love decades-long odds-defying love stories.
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on October 23, 2004
The author is a wonderful writer: the story is taut, the characters have depth, the description of a besieged country mixed with a beautiful love story is fairly riveting. However, the ending was like walking up to a door and not being able to open it. I don't need tidy or happy endings, but this story could have done with a little resolution.
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on December 30, 2007
The Lovers of Algeria is a horrifyingly vivid, achingly tragic novel with, at its core, a fragile and imperfect love story spanning decades of loss, relocation, and hopeful discovery in its North African setting. The story, told in overlapping flashbacks and contemporary (1997) scenes, is too involved to recite, but it should be enough to say that Anna, a Swiss gaouria, and Arab Nassreddine have an unconventional love affair that begins when they are young adults and continues, or tries to continue, amid four decades of war between European, Algerian, and religious interests. The scenes of conflict are intensely graphic, but Benmalek's skill as an author is equally as true in crafting scenes of memorable, albeit sad beauty for his cautious but passionate pair; these are the scenes that may -- and I am not sure they do -- transcend two lives brimmed with disappointment. Love, we hope, can outlast everything, but the scars of destruction this story undresses for us do not fade from memory so easily.
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on March 20, 2005
If I could rate this as a zero star, I would have done so. This was pretty much a waste of time, money and emotion. If the authors purpose was to see how many times he could invoke the vision of Algerians as crude, evil and heartless, I guess he was successful for whatever reasons. Looking for a ray of light in an otherwise grim tale, not in this book. The blurb writer on the book jacket makes polygraphs for blurb writers seem attractive. The constant repetition of Middle Eastern profanity was almost laughable, but did add to the word and page count. I don't even want to recycle it at our local used book sale.
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