Thursday, April 02, 2015

All the Walls Around us

Book Review: Boualem Sansal's Harraga
Lovers of Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood trilogy who have often wondered what it would be like to tuck into a few google buns, shock toffees and pop biscuits have only to pick up Boualem Sansal’s wonderfully evocative Harraga, which means ‘path burner’ in Arabic. This hauntingly beautiful tale about two diametrically opposing personalities, Lamia and Cherifa will make your taste – buds sing with hits of sugar as well as spice and your eyes sting with its acid bite.

            The protagonist, Lamia, is a wounded animal, having lost her parents and elder brother in quick succession. Her younger brother, Sofiane is a Harraga, who has run away from home, hoping to leave the country and find a better life or die in the process. Resigned to spending a life, licking her wounds having stockpiled more than a fair share of sorrow, she retreats to the colonial mansion she calls home. Barricaded within its crumbling confines she has only the company of the ghosts that roam free from the shackles of life if not death. By day, she is a paediatrician and it helps stave away penury, despair and encroaching madness, but barely. It is then that a pregnant waif, sent by Sofiane blows into her life like a runaway tornado. Cherifa is just as destructive and departs as quickly leaving Lamia reeling from her encounter with a prodigious force of nature.  
            The chronicle is propelled forward more on the strength of its central character, ably aided by the beauty of the prose, rather than a suspenseful succession of endless revelations. Lamia is a self – proclaimed “hateful bitch” whose prickly exterior, which could easily rival a porcupine at its most bristly, belies a tender core, spilling over with repressed passion and a mother’s endless compassion. Her scathing indictment of Algiers, which according to her is a “trollop who gives of herself the better to take”, the corrupt government that has allowed their country to go to seed and Islamists, who “dream of the glorious crimes against humanity yet to be committed” will have the reader lapping up her observations and asking for more.
            In direct contrast, Cherifa is the blithe spirit, who breezes through life, helping herself to all she needs without so much as a thank you, unmindful of the fact, that in their world, an unwed, knocked – up mother, who dresses skimpily and has no trouble picking up men even in the advanced stages of her pregnancy may well be looking at the death penalty. Like Lamia, the reader will have trouble warming to the child – woman but will eventually become fond of her for refusing to kowtow to the draconian laws of a spiteful civilization.
            Cherifa is not meant to be tied down and she flees the bonds of Lamia’s affection, leaving the latter devastated and unable to come to terms with the loneliness she had foolishly believed to be her shield. Gravitating towards the other victims, who had been affected by the tornado, one of whom is named Scheherazade, Lamia struggles in vain to recapture the moonbeam that had slipped through her fingers or at the very least figure out what had become of it, on the road leading to the enormously moving climax.

            In addition to exploring the perils of being a single, woman in a patriarchal society, extreme solitude and disillusionment with an unpalatable reality, Sansal seeks to answer his own question, “How far can your life take you when there is nothing to hold you back?” and the revelation will leave you with a lump in the throat, a smile on the lips and a fervent desire to become an honest to goodness, Harraga.  
This review was written for The New Indian Express and you can check it out here.