This award-winning book, first published in 1985, was the first book written in Arabic by an Algerian woman. Algeria is a country in the midst of a cultural identity crisis. The fallout from 150 years of French conquest has muddled what it means to be Algerian. The speaking of Arabic itself is controversial. Many consider it better than speaking French, as most people did before the revolution in 1962, but it is still a language of outsiders. Because of all this it is no wonder that “Memory in the Flesh” is a book about identity, nostalgia, and (of course) memory after the revolution.
Khalid, the protagonist, was once a freedom fighter. Now after losing an arm and leaving Algeria, he paints pretty pictures for the French elite while living in exile in Paris. He falls in love with the daughter of someone he fought with in the revolution. Her name, perhaps not so coincidentally, is Ahlam, the same as the author’s. It is obvious the relationship isn’t going to work out, but the author makes us wait for the details.
The book reads more like poetry. There is little emphasis on scene and dialog. Much of the book consists of poetic description and Khalid’s confessing his love within the safe confines of his mind. It can make one dizzy in the same way that love confuses and tricks the brain. Though it often comes across as beautiful, the lack of substance becomes tiring. I got burnt out about 100 pages in and had to slog through the rest.
I realize my reaction may just be because such novels are not my cup of tea. If you are able to look past the structure, the book is a beautiful love story. It also expertly deals with the concept of “nostalgia.” Khalid is unable to deal with the present. He believed that Algeria would become a perfect world after the revolution, and is too terrified to return and realize that not much has changed except the flag. Khalid romanticizes both his past, the city he used to live in, and Ahlam to a degree that there is no way they can live up to his expectations even if they wanted to.
I urge my readers to use digression when approaching this novel. If you enjoy lush, continuous description this may suit you. If you need a bit of action stay away.
Note: There are multiple translations of this book. I recommend the Baria Ahmar Sreih/Peter Clark edition as it best preserves the syntactic flow.