Book review: Boualem Sansal’s Harraga looks at those who leave and those who are left behind
Sansal’s novel investigates the motivations of undocumented migrants from North Africa and the effect their going has on their families
by Boualem Sansal
Harraga is the Arabic word for north African migrants who flee to Europe illegally, seeking a better life, and it’s a word that reverberates through this harrowing yet darkly humorous novel by the Algerian author of An Unfinished Business.
What causes someone to flee their home? What is it like to experience existence as harraga? How can empathy be created between those who aren’t harraga and those who are?
This timely book, well translated from French by Frank Wynne and winner of an English PEN award, powerfully depicts the pain of both those who leave and those who remain. The narrator is 35-year-old Lamia, who has stayed in Algiers, but whose brother Sofiane has become a harrag:“Sofiane had gone the way of the harraga – the ‘path-burners’… This was how everyone referred to those who burned their bridges, who fled the country on makeshift rafts and destroyed their papers when caught.”
Struggling in a patriarchal society, Lamia’s life of “rootless solitude” in an old, colonial house surrounded by slums is interrupted by the arrival of Chérifa, a 16-year-old pregnant stranger claiming to have been sent by Sofiane.
Sansal excels in exploring situations that “force us to change”; here, the two women have a transformative effect upon each other. Music becomes a bond between them (“a vast, sweeping, subtle music echoed through the house”). They listen to scratched vinyl on Lamia’s battered old record player, including “a threnody channelled from the bowels of the earth”, songs that speak to their sadness and loss. But then, in this novel filled with sudden departures, Chérifa disappears, plunging Lamia into a terrible new loneliness, and the novel becomes a threnody itself.
Structurally, giving Lamia the narrative reins proves both a strength and a weakness: it draws us into her intimate thoughts, but her digressions are, at times, distracting and her inner monologue can feel monotonous.
In 2003 Sansal was dismissed from the Algerian civil service for criticising the government, and his work has been banned in his home country since the 2006 publication of his open letter, “Poste restante: Letter of anger and hope to my compatriots”. This novel continues his bold critique of authoritarian rule, religious fundamentalism and societal inequities such as the subjugation of women with its perceptive portrayal of the havoc politics wreaks on the personal, and the physical and emotional turmoil of lives uprooted.