1 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis (2003)

In my post below on Boualem Sansal's Le Serment des barbares I mentioned his fondness for quoting from books. More than halfway through his third novel, Dis-moi le paradis, a character changes the chorus of Baudelaire's 'L'Invitation au voyage' –  'Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté, | Luxe, calme et volupté' (roughly 'Over there, there is nothing but order and beauty, luxury, peace and voluptuousness') to 'Ici, tout n'est qu'est que désordre et mocheté | Lucre, drame et vanité' (roughly 'Here, there is nothing but disorder and ugliness, greed, catastrophe and vanity.') My main point is not the intertextuality which characterises Sansal's books, not even that inevitably the desperate situation in Algeria is being satirised, but the fact that the two lines of verse are so funny. And Sansal's humor is particularly highlighted in his third novel. But what better place to set the framework of such a work than a bar, where so many people relax telling funny stories? (Yes, of course it's deadly serious too, but that's not the point: Sansal can find a funny way to describe anything.)

The bar in question here the Bar des Amis in Bab El Oued in Algiers, which is run by Ammi Salah. Here Tarik, who's a medical doctor in the capital and known to all of the customers simply as Doc, tells the best stories and the book is full of his words. He tells of how he drove his two cousins Farida and Romyla (on two separate journeys) from Algiers to M'Sila, where the sisters' mother has died.

There are of course many digressions of many pages to describe various characters and situations, but the narrative essentially operates between a number of flashbacks related by Doc, punctuated by returns to the bar. M'sila is hit by a cholera epidemic, inevitably bringing to mind both García Márquez's El amor en los tiempos del cólera (Love in the Time of Cholera) and Camus's La Peste (The Plague), and it's well known that Camus's plague of rats stands for the Nazi activities during World War II. At great risk to their lives, several of the characters later set off from the ravaged M'Sila to the remote M'Cif, where they also tend to those in a tribe stricken by cholera. And then they are about to have their throats slit by a rival tribe but are saved in the nick of time. Does this sound like a shaggy dog story?

Well, speaking of dogs, when they were on their way back from Algiers airport they had to stop to eat something in Palestro as Doc said they were so hungry they could have eaten off the head of a scabby dog, and then says – the olive oil bottle being empty – that the waiter instead used a liquid that seemed to have come from a sump oil container. What do we make of this mad talk?

One thing to make of it, of course, is that there's (as Doc admits at the end) a lot of exaggeration in this, although surely he has to exaggerate to prove a point? At one point Doc punningly mentions 'Tonton chez les Gaulois' and certainly at times this novel has the flavor of a cartoon. 'Le gnome', similar to a deformed gnostic genius from the Talmud and cabbalistic literature and 'adopted' by the family in M'Sila, has cartoonish traits too. A modern Rabelais in north Africa?

And what of the little boy whom Doc 'adopts' after seeing him forlorn in a corner of the crummy restaurant, who causes Doc's wife to leave home, whom Doc discovers bears the forename of Boudmediene after the detested Algerian dictator, who seems somewhat nihilistic until he perks up and asks Doc to tell him about paradise, thus giving the book its title? A literary relation to the mad boy in the hollow tree?

For Sansal and for many more in Algeria, paradise is quite the reverse of modern Algeria, and at the end of the novel Doc relates the depressing history of the country, including the history of M'Cif and M'sida. He entrusts his words with, er, the writer. Another amazing book from Boualem Sansal.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

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Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

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