by Yasmina Khadra
William Heinemann ₤10.99, 272 pages
THE STAR OF ALGIERS
by Aziz Chouaki
Serpent’s Tail ₤8.99, 224 pages
The urge to compare is irresistible: two Algerian novelists, both living in France, both releasing books in English at the same time, and both attempting to answer the same vexing contemporary question: what drives ordinary Muslims to embrace violent Islamic fundamentalism? As with most comparisons, one shines at the expense of the other.
The Attack, by Yasmina Khadra, is the lesser light. Khadra is the female pseudonym of the army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, chosen to elude military censors when he wrote his first novel Swallows of Kabul. In The Attack his protagonist Amin is an Israeli Arab, and a veritable poster boy for Middle Eastern progressiveness. A secular surgeon, Amin is well educated, well off, and well integrated into mainstream Israeli life. He has Jewish friends and colleagues.
In the first chapter, we find him in his hospital, tending to the wounded after a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv cafe. Exhausted by gruelling long hours, he finally makes it home - though not without being treated roughly at a check point - only to be summoned back to the hospital a few hours later. There Amin is informed that the suicide bomber was none other than his own sweet, compliant, and - or so he thought - equally progressive wife.
The premise is promising, but no premise alone can carry a novel, and its execution is frustrating. Tortured by the sudden apprehension that all those years he had no idea to whom he was married, Amin leaves his job behind to investigate what, or who, happened to his wife Sihem. Yet Sihem never takes vivid shape, not even as she seemed to her husband before exploding his mythology of her, much less does she come into focus as the increasingly politicised, angry woman she secretly grew into. Long polemical discussions with imams and West Bank militants fail to bring the woman to life. By the end her husband may feel he grasps how she came to blow herself up, but the reader is none the wiser.
What most impedes any real appreciation for the emotional path from housewife to human bomb is the prose, often purple and overwrought. To be fair, it is impossible for an English reader to know whether the tonal OTT hails from the author or the translator. But lines such as this - “I barely have time to see my grief clearly before the groundswell rises again, throbbing, foaming, breaking over me as if driven raving mad by my perplexity and determined to dismantle me, fibre by fibre, until I fall apart... “ Well. As they say, show, don’t tell.
By contrast, the writing in The Star of Algiers is crisp, sharp, and almost breezy. (”Bathroom, quick wash, no water. Moussa takes some from the jerrican and gives his face a cat-lick in front of the mirror: good-looking guy, got to admit it.”) Aziz Chouaki’s tale takes place in Algeria during the rise of Islamic fanaticism, a history less familiar to most western readers than Israel’s. Yet even without a thorough-going knowledge of Algerian politics, the setting and characters are pleasingly accessible.
Like Amin in The Attack, Moussa Massy is secular and apolitical. He has contempt for “the beards”; he yearns to be a pop star. Living in a dishevelled flat with 13 other family members, Moussa finally gets his break, and becomes the headline singer at a trendy nightclub in Algiers. Yet as Moussa exhilarates in his newfound fame, drinking heavily and lavishing his earnings on flashy outfits, the fundamentalist Islamists of the FIS rise to power. The insidious influence of “the beards” on everyday life in Algeria growing unheeded in the background mirrors the chilling emergence of Nazism in the backdrop of the film Cabaret.
When the nightclub changes hands and becomes a dive, Moussa’s fortunes turn for the worse, and so begins a plummet into penury, drug abuse, and desperation; all of Algeria deteriorates with him. Best not to betray too much of the plot; suffice to say that on the other side of countless abortive attempts to leave the country - along with many of his compatriots - Moussa becomes a murderous Islamic zealot for the FIS. Textually, the shift from aspirant crooner to machete- wielding lunatic is swift and abrupt, conveying something of a psychic break. In the end, Moussa is still a star of Algiers, but of a much scarier stripe.
Where Khadra explicates how ordinary people become fanatics directly and pedantically, Chouaki does so obliquely - and seems more concerned with telling a compelling story. Sihem in The Attack is a shadowy, inert construct; Moussa is a full-blooded, boisterous character whose conversion, however perplexing, at least seems to matter, since most readers will have formed some fondness for the man beforehand. In laying out the reasons that Palestinians become suicide bombers 1-2-3 like a newspaper article, The Attack leaves its audience emotionally unenlightened. The Star of Algiers spurns didactic sociologising, portraying Moussa’s journey toward the FIS as messy, erratic and maybe even accidental. Khadra would explain; Chouaki is content to allow the leap to fanaticism to remain a mystery. In trying to gain insight into the mind of a terrorist, mystification may be a more fruitful starting point than the illusion of comprehension.
Lionel Shriver’s novel “Double Fault” is published by Serpent’s Tail.