On the surface Harraga is the story of two ill-matched women colliding dramatically, with life-changing consequences. What emerges, in throwaway fragments, is a picture of Algeria’s chequered past and present; a history of conquest and occupation. It’s a sugar-coated pill with a burning, bitter core.
Boualem Sansal is an Algerian writer recently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. His novels have been translated into 18 languages and won international awards. In his own country, his books are banned.
Before becoming a writer at the age of 50, he enjoyed an enviable life as general director of Algeria’s ministry of industry and restructuring, until open criticism of the regime cost him his job. He still lives in Algeria, though officially ostracised. The first of his six novels to be translated into English was the widely praised An Unfinished Business.
The Algeria of Harraga lies somewhere between nightmare and soap opera: people disappear, girls get their throats slit, neighbours pop in for a cup of sugar and a gossip. Lamia, a 35-year old paediatrician, lives alone in the ramshackle mansion that was her family home. She sees the country ‘torn between rabid reactionism and ghastly futurism’ and has withdrawn, a recluse with only ghosts for company. The house itself is a character in the story; its walls hold history. Every room offers a tale of past occupants — Ottoman, French, Muslim, Jewish.
Choosing to be single she has joined ‘the most reviled mob in the Islamic world, the company of free, independent women’. Her brother has become a harraga (‘path burner’ in Arabic), a runaway risking everything for the chance of a better life elsewhere. If a harraga survives the journey, he or she burns their bridges and their identity papers.
The paediatrician’s ordered existence is shattered when she opens the reinforced steel front door to a stranger, a scatty Lolita figure in punk finery; 16 years old, penniless and pregnant.