One Country, One Book — Algeria

The Bridges of Constantine by Ahlam Mosteghanemi (1993)

Ahlam Mosteghanemi is the most published female author in Arabic. Her family was exiled during the war for independence, and returned to Algeria at the end of the war. On her website, she claims that the University of Algiers rejected her graduate application because it was considered improper for women to have freedom of expression. She currently lives in Lebanon. Reading one of her popular books seemed like a no-brainer.

I would call The Bridges of Constantine a historical romance. It was a genre new to me and Algeria was a country new to me. It was hard for me to get really engrossed in the story and the prose didn’t flow easily, but I’m not a big fan of romance and there might have been translation issues. The writing felt very modern in sensibility and rather purple. It’s hard to parse what might be a uniquely Algerian attitude — fatalistic, dramatic, obsessive. One of the things that I didn’t know before starting this list was whether novels told the same kind of stories no matter where they came from or whether stories were unmistakably flavored with the culture of their country. It’s not that I’ve never read a book from another country before, but many books that are commonly read in English translations seem as if they’re either picked for universality or so ingrained in literary culture that their otherness is hardly noticed anymore.

The protagonist was a fighter in the Algerian war for independence, but as the story starts, he’s an ex-pat and an artist, disgusted by the corruption in the country he left behind, and obsessed with the daughter of his old commander whom he once loved as a daughter himself. He’s emo about both the country and the woman.

The first three books (Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria) have all been books about the native country of the author. I know that it’s a mistake to assume that the author speaks through her protagonist, but all three authors seem like they might have relationships with their countries similar to Mosteghanemi’s character — they can’t stop caring even though they are troubled by the corruption or feuds or violent turmoil. Their countries aren’t just another book setting, but a place they’re permanently connected to, no matter where else they’ve settled.