Harraga by Boualem Sansal

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Translated by Frank Wynne

Reviewed by Alice Farrant

Harraga by Boualem Sansal is a dazzling mix of poetry and prose set in the old quarters of Algiers, capital of Algeria. Here Lamia resides isolated, in a crumbling mansion dislocated from the world. That is until Chérifa, sent by her Harraga brother, appears on her doorstep. Astride Lamia’s tale, Sansal weaves in the narrative of the city. The corruption of Algiers, the quashing of ‘free speech’ and the persecution of women. As both characters pull together and push apart a wider sense of political disruption and control is revealed.

Lamia is brusque and reclusive, used only to conversing with Ghost and the difficult men of her society. Where her brother Sofiane exiles himself physically from their country Lamia does so mentally. Dark and secluded, she wanders through life half dreaming. Chérifa’s entrance is a bright light of chaos, the pregnant 16-year-old upturns her world in every way.

After the death of her relatives and the disappearance of Sofiane, Lamia has fallen into a well of fantasies. She is more comfortable in her own head than experiencing what the outside has to offer. To ready to accept the world than change it.

“In our eagerness to dream, we living dead have a tendency to forget that a mere glimpse of life can be fatal to us. Afterwards, I tell myself that such affections are unseemly, but th3en I remind myself that to dream only of the life we know is to darken our days.” Lamia, Harraga, p.21

Lamia is an example of the woman who cautiously follow the patriarchal line, and Chérifa is an example of a woman who does not. Chérifa is free, unafraid of religious radicalism, uneducated and unable to read. Lamia is a doctor, stoic and inhibited. She is hyper aware of the disadvantages of being a woman. Both in her own country and to an extent Europe. She wants to mould Chérifa, to protect her and her child.

Together they are the mixing of introvert and extrovert, each pulling the other from the extremes of their personalities. Where once was controlled order comes strewn clothes and petulance, Chérifa is messy and untamed. She draws life out of Lamia, pulls the emotions from her, which she had trapped away inside her for so long. In contrast Lamia becomes the parental figure Chérifa has always needed.

“Day by day I am discovering that our lives only partly belong to us. And there is no guarantee that the part we can control is more crucial that the part we cannot.” Lamia, Harraga, p.150

Their house is a tomb, haunted by ghosts of her past, a character of it’s own. Both a home and prison to Lamia’s and Chérifa, continually producing rooms as if it fed of Lamia’s anxieties.  Chérifa dispels the shadows with the light of her inquisitive nature, ghosts no longer remain faceless and nameless. The inhabitants of her city become people as well as residence.

Harraga is beautifully translated by Frank Wynne, retaining an air of intricacy in the language and the brilliance of the wit. I don’t read many translated books, to my own failing. Sansal’s novel is a splendid reminder of the wealth of fiction that exists waiting to be translated for a wider audience. Not only have I read an engaging beautiful piece of fiction, I have learnt much about what it is to be a woman in a country where men are valued and women are subservient.

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You can find Alice Farrant here https://ofbooks.org/ @nomoreparades

Boualem Sansal, Harraga, trans. Frank Wynne (Bloomsbury: London, 2014). 978-1408843987, 276pp., hardback.

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