Harraga by Boualem Sansal
One of the best books I’ve read recently. Harraga means ‘those who burn’, in this context it’s someone who attempts to illegally immigrate to another country/regime.
The book was written in French, by the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, and translated into English by Frank Wynne. The book is set mostly in the house (and the mind!) of Lamia. Her house is very unusual, being huge, many generations old, and full of history and mystery.
Lamia, a professional female (doctor working in a local hospital) in a male dominated Muslim world, lives in self-imposed exile – partly due to her history, but largely in an attempt to preserve her independent mind. Much of the story is Lamia’s inner dialogue, which slowly reveals the characters around her, and her illusions and projections about them.
Her orderly and rather boring life is thrown into chaos by the arrival of a sixteen year old pregnant, extrovert girl with little sense of self-preservation: Cherifa.
They become very fond of each, and are both too stubborn to say so. When, after several brief exits from the house, Cherifa really does leave for good, Lamia is thrown into disarray.
She can’t recreate her previous life; she can’t stop worrying about Cherifa and trying to find her; her health and mood is all over the place.
Extraordinary characters gradually emerge, and penetrate Lamia’s world, largely through the chaos created by Cherifa’s antics. Harraga by Boualem Sansal
Despite the climate of Islamism, many characters emerge as just that – characters. The sense of fear, which requires everyone to either conform or conceal their individuality, is horrific. Cherifa seems oblivious to the climate in which she live, and this endangers her life.
I won’t tell you what happens, because I want you to read the book!
I hope it displays vividly how arbitrary are the stories people tell themselves (if you are saying “NO I DON’T!” – this is part of your story 🙂 ).
The internal dialogue has it’s uses, but it is hardly ultimate truth carved in stone. How easily we can delude ourselves, and how free speech, open discussion and a wee bit of insight would be so much better than fearfully turning ideas into dogma, whether they be religious, the consumer nightmare propagated by corporate media or the self-serving norms reinforced by clan, extended family, what the loudest mouth down the pub says, …
Some literary critics have rubbished the book because it is all seen through the eyes of one person. I think it works, in fact in a repressive society where most people have to keep their thoughts to themselves, it is an inspired and meaningful means of putting the reader into the character’s shoes.
More generally, it is an examination of the fictions that anyone can harbour, inherit or even cherish until they are ‘blessed’ (yes, God, Allah, the collective unconscious, fate, the Buddha-nature, or Richard Dawkins’ reductionist materialism do work in mysterious ways) with a whirlwind like Cherifa.
Wonderful characters that emerge include Bluebeard: a mysterious neighbour who was almost entirely Lamia’s projected fears); Scheherazade: a student that Cherifa ‘finds’ to temporarily rescue her; and an eccentric man who is named after his bus (having found his character through his own occupation, outside the production lines of state control and corporations).
The contrast between the world of individuals and the cloning process attempted by those in power is vivid and alarming.
Highly recommended …