Love Of Literature — And Algeria — Illuminates 'Our Riches'

May 3, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 8:48 am

Like many Algerians and Franco-Algerians, the novelist Kaouther Adimi has spent much of her life moving between Algiers, where she was born, and Paris, where she now lives. Thanks to France's 132-year colonization of Algeria, the two countries are thoroughly intertwined — a relationship Adimi explores with nuance and determination in her third novel, Our Riches, newly translated by the excellent Chris Andrews. Moving adeptly from colonized Algiers to the present day, and from a beloved bookstore's birth to its near-death, Adimi at once offers a love letter to literary culture, Algerian independence and the city of Algiers.

She takes her title from Les Vraies Richesses, Algiers' famous bookstore, library and publishing house, where much of Our Riches takes place. It was founded in the mid-1930s by a 20-year-old Algerian Frenchman named Edmond Charlot, a literary wunderkind most famous for discovering Albert Camus. His life story, told in diary form, takes up half the novel. Adimi alternates it with a collectively narrated account of Algeria's rejection of colonial rule, which shades into the tale of the bookstore's fate after independence: It first becomes a library, then, in 2017, gets sold to an entrepreneur who wants to turn it into a beignet store. (Charlot's diary is grounded in research; the beignet-store plotline, thankfully, is made up.)

Adimi braids her plotlines together deftly, never lingering long before moving on. This approach could seem hurried or superficial, but here, it works beautifully. Charlot's literary egalitarianism — he was devoted, as a real-life obituary put it, to "international understanding between Arabs and Europeans," which got him incarcerated and led the French colonial police to destroy his archives twice — complements the battle for liberation and turns his store into a site of "History, with a capital H."

In her collective sections, Adimi writes capital-H History with real force. Her description of French police brutally repressing a pro-independence protest in 1961 is gut-wrenching. So is her evocation of the 1945 Sétif massacre during which French civilians in Algeria "destroy whole villages. Pavements run with blood. Corpses are dumped in wells. At Heliopolis, they fire up the lime kilns to dispose of the troublesome bodies."

This is rightfully harsh writing, but Our Riches is not always a harsh book. Often it's sunny, sometimes downright seductive. Take the first chapter, which reads like travel writing.

"As soon as you arrive in Algiers," Adimi writes, "You will have to tackle the steep streets, climb and then descend. You will come out onto Didouche Mourad — so many alleyways off to each side, like hundreds of intersecting stories." She takes her imagined you on a tour of the city, which, of course, ends at Les Vraies Richesses — and which indicates, intriguingly, that Adimi does not have Algerian readers in mind. Her you has never been to Algiers, and perhaps has never devoted much thought to the Sétif massacre or thought about Algerian independence at all.

Adimi's quick, masterful tonal switches may well be designed for this you. Even when writing in her most historical mode, she slides easily between emotions and perspectives, dipping from the communal we into a child's head to observe a "great big man" or transitioning speedily from formal to informal accounts of an anti-colonial bombing in 1954: "There are ten fatalities, including four soldiers. A proclamation is sent to various capitals, demanding the withdrawal of the French. On the morning of the first of November, the weather is icy cold. Barely awake, we hear the news of the previous night's events on the radio." Always, Adimi prioritizes the emotional account over the factual, devoting more time and writerly care to small-h history than to the capital-H kind.

'Our Riches' is, above all, a loving book. -

Her style would delight Charlot, whom Adimi portrays as both a socially egalitarian optimist and an open-hearted humanist. Her Charlot believes above all in "literature, art, and friendship." He name-checks more writers than any fictional character outside a Roberto Bolaño novel. He complains of his customers, "I'm talking literature, but they want bestsellers!" He is, of course, a terrible businessman. He's also a charming, engaging narrator, even in his brief diary entries, which are rarely more than a few lines long and hop freely from year to year. In tone, length and speed, they stand in striking contrast to the collectively narrated chapters, which are slow-paced and lovingly detailed.

Our Riches is, above all, a loving book. Charlot's love of literature illuminates his sections and glows through the present-day ones. So does the communal narrator's love of Algiers: its "young banjo players, [its] old women behind closed shutters, [its] children having fun with a cat that has lost its tail. And the blue overhead, and the blue at your feet: sky blue plunging into sea blue, a drop of oil dilating into infinity." This kind of thorough, patient description always expresses commitment. In Our Riches, it feels like devotion — to Algeria, and to the world of literature.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati.

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