BEIRUT: “Exile is more than a geographical concept,” wrote Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. “You can be an exile in your homeland, in your own house, in a room.” Khaled, the one-armed painter who narrates Algerian author Ahlem Mosteghanemi’s first novel, “Dhakirat al-Jasad” (Memories in the Flesh), is an emotional and geographical exile.
An ex-revolutionary who finds himself alienated from his country’s corrupt military regime 25 years after independence, the artist lives in Paris. His life is empty, consisting of solitary days painting in his studio, broken up by casual sex with Catherine, a French life model. Involuntarily isolated from home, he lives in self-imposed isolation.
Mosteghanemi's novel, the first to be written in Arabic by an Algerian woman, was originally published in 1993 and sold over a million copies worldwide. Translated into English by Raphael Cohen, it was recently published by Bloomsbury under the title “The Bridges of Constantine.” It is the first book in a trilogy to be released in translation in the next few years.
Unusually for a novel, the entire book is written in the second person, addressed to the object of Khaled’s obsession – an author who has just published a novel of her own. As she once told him “we write novels for no other reason than to kill their heroes,” Khaled suspects he is the subject of her book. He sets out to conduct an assassination of his own, bringing the woman he he loved ad lost to life on paper so that he can finally lay her to rest.
Consumed with frustrated love, bitterness and anger, Khaled recounts their history together in an outpouring of raw emotion. The umusual second-person voice gives the novel an epistolary air and allows for an unconventional structure, one eschewing a typical plot arc, discarding action in favor of mapping an emotional trajectory.
The object of Khaled’s passion is a woman half his age, the daughter of Si Taher, a close friend and commander during the Algerian revolution. The two met have crossed paths long ago. She was an infant in a white smock and he an injured militant, tasked with registering her birth on behalf of her absent father.
During the opening night of his exhibition in Paris, 25 years later, he sees a beautiful young woman dressed in white, wearing a plaited gold Algerian bracelet. Instantly reminded of his mother, and his motherland, Khaled is inexorably drawn to her.
When he discovers that she is Si Taher’s daughter, his fascination intensifies. At once the mother he lost, the daughter he never had and the country he renounced, she becomes a symbol of the price of exile, a means of regaining his forgotten past, as well as an object of potent physical desire.
“I gathered in you all those I loved,” he writes. “Your appearance bought the homeland back to life.”
Seeing her as memory made flesh, the artist paints pictures of Constantine, telling the girl they are portraits of her. Khaled doesn’t reveal the name of his love interest; known before her registration as Hayat, he hints that her name means “dreams,” suggesting that she is called “Ahlem,” like Mosteghanemi. The parallels between the two women are striking, yet the author says she did not intend to write about herself.
“It’s me and it’s not me,” she admits, 25 years after writing the novel. “It’s like someone who is hiding behind their fingers. There are a lot of things from my life. She is also a writer. Her father is a militant. She is born in Tunisia, like me. ... With a first novel, writers tend to put a lot of themselves into it. The first novel is always autobiographical. I wanted to avoid writing an autobiographical novel so I made the narrator a man and I ended up with another problem: People said it was about me.”
In fact, there are as many echoes of the author in the character of Khaled as in the woman he loves. Like Mosteghanemi, who wrote the novel while living in Paris, he is cut off from his roots. His relationship with Algeria is built on memory and a love for the ideals of the revolution that never came to fruition, not the military state of the 1990s.
“We are never cured of memory,” he writes in the opening pages of the book. “That’s why we paint and why we write.”
Mosteghanemi channels the voice of a middle-aged man so convincingly, conjuring up his frustrations, fears and passions, that when the book was published it was attributed to a male author. It took her three years and five lawyers to prove she wrote it.
“He’s a character I put together from several different men,” she explains. “He has an artistic side, which comes from one man I know. The revolutionary side is from my father, and when it comes to his persona as an impassioned lover, I drew inspiration from still another man.
“He’s a man who falls in love like it’s a madness. He doesn’t love normally. All the more so because he loves a woman the age of his daughter who awakens everything within him ... He’s hard like the men who fought; he’s fragile like the men who never had the chance to live a beautiful love story. He has all the contradiction of a man of his age.”
As the novel progresses, the root of Khaled’s anger toward Hayat/Ahlem, at first unclear, gradually begins to make sense. He increasingly equates her more closely with home, until “you” comes to stand for Constantine and, by extension, Algeria. Khaled’s outpouring of anger and love for a woman becomes Mosteghanemi’s letter to her homeland.
“Sometimes a novel can only be narrated by a man because of the weight of history,” the author says. “If the person telling the story was the woman, the novel would be weaker, because a girl of 25 couldn’t narrate the contents of this story. The reader is more moved by someone who tells his own story, who says, ‘I suffered,’ who cries in front of you. ... In the end, this woman is a symbol of all Algeria and all the pain she causes him is the pain of Algeria.
“You have to remember that this novel was published 20 years ago. It was not safe to say all those things at that time. We still had a one-party state. ... At the time, I had to be very courageous, because I agitated and I criticized. ... To speak about history one must make it a love story ... without it there’s too much blood, too many bodies.
“I have always said that a writer is a smuggler. Like a trafficker who’s hiding drugs or money, he must not be caught. You smuggle messages in your words.”
Some readers may struggle initially with the unusual style, which is often closer to poetry than prose, falling somewhere between a stream-of-consciousness monologue and a letter, and the fact that the story is told almost entirely in flashbacks.
It is well worth persevering. A powerful political critique disguised as a love story, Mosteghanemi’s book was banned by censors in a number of Arab countries when it was published two decades ago, and retains its raw power to this day.
The author notes that the situation in Algeria has changed, but her story of a failed love that echoes a failed revolution remains relevant and resonant today.
Ahlem Mosteghanemi’s “The Bridges of Constantine” is published by Bloomsbury and is available at local bookstores.