1 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux (2000)

L’enfant fou de l’arbre creux (lit. The Mad Boy in the Hollow Tree) is set in the present day in the Algerian prison of Lambèse, where two prisoners – the French 'visitor' Pierre Chaumet and the Algerian Farid – are threatened with the death sentence. Outside in the yard – although only perceived by Pierre – is a mad boy chained to a hollow tree where he sleeps. Sansal has said that the prison represents Algeria itself, where the inhabitants are imprisoned by the system. And the blind boy – only perceived by Pierre because only outsiders have the ability to take full consciousness of a reality that doesn't belong to them – represents the Algerian people. Pierre and Farid have a long time to talk about their lives, and this is the main content of the book.

Some readers were – perhaps a little understandably – somewhat discouraged by Sansal's Le Serment des barbares because of its digressive nature and its tendency to rant. L’enfant fou de l’arbre creux is, as can expected, still a very strong criticism of post-independent Algeria, but is more firmly rooted to 'conventional' narrative, far less given to long digressive passages. But the obvious love of language and the supremely rich vocabulary and poetic means of expression remain.

Farid's story is soon told: he got caught up Islamist killers.

Pierre's story is much longer. He was brought up in France not by his biological parents but the medical doctor Hector Chaumet and his wife Marie-Madeleine: his father died before he was born and his mother Aïcha (who is now in a psychiatric hospital) left him in the care of the Chaumets three months after his birth. Pierre was born Khaled El Madauri, and at the age of thirty-seven has clandestinely returned to find out about Khaled, to discover his origins, learn the truth about his father's death.

In his search, Pierre takes along '22 long rifle' Salim to Vialar (now called Tissemsilt), which is three hundred kilometres from the capital. The hospital director is a drunkard who trades in selling patients off for as much as he can get: according to the taxi driver who carries Pierre and Aïcha away, psychiatric patients sell for a premium because their 'owners' can make money by turning them into beggars. Possibly Sansal is exaggerating here, but at least the general point he's trying to make is clear. And as Pierre discovers the truth about his father's death, he discovers too much, hence the mess he's now in.

Sansal continues his task of revealing the atrocities, the violence, corruption, ignorance, the internecine conflicts within modern Algeria. And the way he tells his story is spell-binding.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

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