Breaking from tradition, Ahmed Gasmia not only writes a nineteenth-century historical novel that’s funny. It also has a happy ending:
By Nadia Ghanem
Ahmed Gasmia is an Algerian author of historical fiction. His third novel, A Bandit’s Promise (Promesse de bandit), released in April, sets him in a league of his own: Gasmia’s fiction is positive and breaks away from a long tradition of tragedy in Algerian literature.
When I try to muster a list of attributes that could describe the corpus of Algerian literature written in French, the sum I have come up with over the years inevitably gravitates towards ‘sombre’, ‘gloomy’, and ‘utterly depressing’. Algerian literature in French strikes me as particularly oriented toward no hope-endings in comparison to its counterpart in Arabic, especially when it comes to historical fiction. The last ten years have been no exception to this gravitation toward tragic endings. I have always found this trait of Algerian literature rather strange given the sense of humour that prevails in civil society, so present in cinematography, like our ability to see our hilarious propensity for nonsensical neologism such as the famous ‘orange juice of lemon’, or bus drivers’ well known entreaties for crowds to ‘move back forward’. The novelist Chawki Amari, the most talented writer of my generation I’ve no doubt, has always remained on the edge of bleakness, but he is one of two writers I’ve come across who uses humour to capture our sense of the absurd. The novelist Ahmed Gasmia is the second. Gasmia’s fiction is not only humourous, his stories are positive and end well. Among this sea of darkness, finding a good ending is so exciting I have to say this again: Algerian stories can and do end well.
Set in the 19th century, A Bandit’s Promise follows Hafnaoui Dayem, a young highwayman whose ambition is to rival Amer Ben Lahcen’s fame in the world of banditry. The novel opens when Hafnaoui, on his way back from a failed robbery attempt, is witness to a murder. Hafnaoui realises the victim, an old man, is still alive. As he approaches to give him water, the sheikh makes Hafnaoui swear an oath. It is imperative that his children be made aware of a hidden inheritance. Hafnaoui can’t help but feel baited by the promise of a recompense, and sorry to see the old man die, he sets off to find the sheikh’s family.
At this time in history, the French military were reinforcing their presence in the desert and on westward roads because of the impending revolt led by Cheikh Bouamama. The revolt of the Bouamama is a well documented uprising mounted to resist colonialism in the late 19th century. The result of increased French military patrols for highwaymen means that they are forced to choose between going further away in the desert to ‘work’, or fight the French. Through a series of amusing accidents, Hafnaoui ends up part prisoner and part member of Ben Lahcen’s men and must prove himself to be a skilled robber to stay alive.
The situation faced by individuals so far free to move as they wished, and the manner in which they will have to negotiate imposed borders, are at the core of Gasmia’s historical narrative, while Hafanoui’s opportunity to make his name and the fulfillment of his promise are at the centre of the fun. Gasmia portrays the ridiculousness of a situation that made institutionalized theft permissible (the French army) and Algerians who will stand against oppression to defend their absolute right to rob themselves and each other. Wink to reality.
There is a strong sense of place in A Bandit’s Promise, with descriptions of the desert landscape, its sand storms, and traveling across vast expanses of land. It’s a type of cinematic technique that I’d already found engrossing in Gasmia’s first novel Conspiracy in Algiers (Complot à Alger), a story that takes place during the Ottoman Regency in a palace that has today become one of Algiers museums. Gasmia had incorporated time travel in this story of budget intrigues at the Ministry of Culture. Gasmia has always used History to weave his fiction. Out of his three novels, only his second Shadow 67 (Ombre 67) remains fully grounded in the present, even though the story takes its root in the resurrection of the 11th century assassins’ order.
In Gasmia’s novels, a minority cast is bent on crime, but instead of plunging a whole society into a loop of infinite depression, that society closes the case and walks on undeterred toward a hope for better days. This may seem like a non-event to readers of other literary traditions, but in ours it’s a remarkable plot twist. Historical novels in Algeria often look toward the threshold that was crossed upon independence, and the darkness that has cloaked many a year since. In a way, this type of focus in fiction has ignored the positive message that centuries of Algerian history carry.
Gasmia has tapped into this positivity and may just have started a new trend in Algerian literature written in French. Give history time, justice a keyboard, and novelists a wicked sense of humour, and we never know, a new dawn may just be on its way.
Dr. Nadia Ghanem is ArabLit’s Algeria Editor. Based between Algeria and the UK, she blogs at tellemchaho.blogspot.co.uk about living in Algeria, and Algerian literature.