Yasmina Khadra is a name I have seen and heard mention often, here in France. At first, I too thought it was a woman writer. The real Yasmina Khadra is indeed a woman, but the author of the books is her husband, the Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul, who created the pseudonym to deflect attention away from censors, as he was an officer in the Algerian army at the beginning of his writing career. His real identity was only revealed after he left the army and came to France to live in 2001.
He is known for offering an alternative narrative and perspective on the subjects he pursues in his fiction, a challenge to commonly held Western stereotypes. Whether he achieves that or not, his books fly off the shelves in France and now appear to be gathering an audience in the English language as well. It’s disturbing, compelling, likely to provoke much debate and makes me look forward to reading his next book.
First published in France in 2012, The African Equation was translated by Howard Curtis for Gallic Books and made available in February 2015. Two further titles will be published in late 2015 and 2016.
Kurt Krausmann, a doctor living in Frankfurt, Germany met a beautiful woman while in Paris, both were there for work purposes, attending different conferences in the same hotel, seemingly wedded to their careers, they found each other and if we are to believe the doctor narrator, 10 years of contentedness followed.
Moments from the past now arrive unbidden, a mocking assurance as his illusion of bliss is permanently scarred the evening he arrives home to discover the loving (though recently tormented by he knows not what) Jessica, has committed suicide.
The doctor’s ritualistic, clinical, predictable life is turned upside down and he experiences extremes of emotion, the like of which he would normally only ever encounter in the detached manner he has of observing patients, those symptoms he has so often downplayed in others threaten to overwhelm him.
‘Try to forget your dark thoughts, Frau Biribauer,’ I said. ‘You’re worrying unnecessarily. It’s all in your mind. Keep your spirits up. You’ve shown great courage and a clear head. You have no reason to give in now. With its joys and pains, life deserves to be lived to the end.’
His friend Hans Mekkenroth, a wealthy philanthropist throws him a lifeline, suggesting he travel with him on one of his regular humanitarian missions, they will sail across the seas in his yacht to deliver supplies to the Comoros Isles.
Hans lost his wife Paula some years before and though there isn’t a day when he doesn’t miss her, he appreciates that life doesn’t stop, he has found meaning in using his wealth to try and alleviate the suffering of others (while enjoying the element of adventure), whether it is the poor of Africa or the 1st world problems of his companion the Doctor, Kurt.
Kurt is about to discover a version of suffering and misery worse than he came with, when they are hijacked by pirates in the Gulf of Aden in the middle of the night and taken hostage. Transported inland, they are initially held in a cave, while their captors decide what to do with them and teach them a lesson or two in the meantime.
The men are moved and lose all sense of where they actually are, as they try to understand who is in charge and what is going on around them. When they meet fellow hostage Bruno, a Frenchman who has been living a nomadic existence in Africa for 40 years, they begin to understand the varying potential prices on their heads and fear for their survival. Despite his captivity, Bruno the ‘born again African’ Frenchman, refuses to let go of his love for Africa, countering every negative situation with an alternative view.
‘I don’t understand what goes on in these monsters’ minds.’
‘A goldfish can’t bring the complexity of the ocean back to the tranquillity of its bowl, Dr Kausmann,’ Bruno said with a hint of reproach.
‘I don’t live on another planet,’ I retorted, exasperated that he could still come out with these insinuations after all I had been through.
‘Neither does a goldfish. But what does it know about storms? The world has become colour blind. On both sides, everything is either black or white, and nobody cares to put things into perspective. Good and evil are ancient history. These days, it’s a matter of predators and prey. The predators are obsessed with extending their living space, the prey with their survival.’
‘You’ve been too long in Africa, Bruno.’
‘What is Africa, or Asia or America? he said in disgust. ‘It’s all the same. Whether you call it a brothel or a whorehouse, it’s the soul that’s in it that determines its vocation. Whether you say “it smells bad” or “it stinks” doesn’t change the air around you. The South Pole is only the North Pole lying on its back, and the West is only the East on the other side of the street. And do you know why, Dr Kausmann? Because there are no more shades of grey, anybody can rationalise anything, even the worst atrocity.’
The hostage experience awakens a once dormant, now seething rage in the Doctor, an equivalent madness that has been roused for some time in his captors, as they trade insults, tirades of hatred and contempt revealing how similar they all are, despite their intent to exert superiority and dominance, each striving to rise above the other. They have worn their societal labels, been perceived, and practised as a Poet(the African) and a Doctor(the Westerner) yet in this unforgiving environment, they are reduced to their despicable worst, seeing the other as their nemesis, representing the worst of those stereotypes, they reduce each other to in their respective forms of bigotry, showing themselves equally capable of the worst man can do, given the circumstances.
It is a compelling story that provokes as many questions as it answers, that at times risks falling into the stereotypical traps it seeks to avert. The Doctor had no desire to travel to the African continent, he is there by accident, thus he represents the perspective of those who come by their views through media and external cultural perspectives and his violent experience would seem only to strengthen those views, though they are challenged by some of his later encounters.
Without giving the plot away, I conclude he learns little from his experience, he reverts to his former self, seeks a form of escape from his reality, another version of the life he had before. Perhaps this is what Khadra is getting at, whether it’s a hostage experience, a safari trip or medical relief, that Westerners remain unchanged by their experience? Certainly tourism is rarely a life changing activity, but living in another country for more than 40 years might be.
We were puzzled by the suicide of the Doctor’s wife and though a reason is proffered, there is little introspection on his part to understand his role in it. Did his subsequent journey transform his character in any way? His reaction on his return and unwillingness to explore it, suggest not.
On the reverse side of this equation, we witness the horror of hostage taking and the keeping of prisoners in horrid conditions, the anger and violence of men, the arid landscape, civilian brutalities, villagers on the run and a refugee camp. They a significant contrast to the part of Africa I have been in recently through Wangari Maathai’s autobiography, Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, she inhabited a woman’s world in the beginning and then through education, the Kenyan elite. Her story does more to dispel the myths and stereotypes than anything else I have read so far. She may have been an exceptional woman, but I have no doubt there are many more like her, who could teach us a lot more about the Frenchman Bruno’s favourite and frequent quote:
‘That’s Africa, Monsieur Krausmann!’