Ahmed Taibaoui: اختفاء السيد لا أحد (The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody)
Our hero, the eponymous Mr Nobody, has been a victim of the Algerian Civil War. He and others were rounded up, even though they were just schoolboys and not involved. However, before he was shot, he was recognised by one of the men who had rounded them up and who arranged for him to be released. His parents had abandoned him and his brother and he was brought up by his aunt who did not have any sons. However when she died, her daughters were less obliging and he had to leave. He left his brother, even though he still misses him to a certain degree (How’s my brother Ammar? We saw each other a few years ago at the funeral of my maternal aunt. He said he missed me and I should go back to Serdj El Ghoul. I miss him terribly now). He then carried out various odd jobs. In particular we learn about his job as a rubbish collector. The government would give contracts to people as rubbish collectors and they would then sell them to people like our hero who did the work but of course only got part of the money. However he was happy enough in the job. But then it went wrong when one of his colleagues was run over by a lorry and he was criticised for not helping the victim avoid the lorry. Other jobs that he did also did not turn out well.
One day, by chance, he saw the man who had saved him from being shot. His name was Mourad and our hero went to embrace him and thank him for all he did. To his surprise, Mourad offers him a job. The job is to look after Mourad’s father, a man our hero describes as a slobbering old man, and who clearly has dementia. Mourad owns two flats one of which his father lives in and one of which he lived in but which he now gives to our hero. He also gets a certain amount of money for looking after the father. At this point Mourad proposes to a woman but then abandons her and disappears. it seems he has gone to Germany and our hero is not able to contact him. He is able to get a certain amount of money by dragging the old man to the post office where he can withdraw his substantial pension for having fought on the right side in the Civil War. With this money he pays a cleaner who also does some cooking and buys food. He also uses some of the money for his own weaknesses – buying books and buying alcohol. Conveniently the same person sells both.
Clearly he is struggling even though he has a roof over his head. By his own admission he’s not very good with women (My history with women is embarrassing. I have no experience and the only thing in me that has changed since I was a teenager is that I’m now burned out, just ashes.). However he does have one brief fling, but he also struggles looking after an incontinent, clearly very ill old man. However he does his best given the circumstances.
He has relatively limited contact with the people in the area. He goes to the local café owned by a man called Mubarak and Mubarak visits him a couple of times. He does not like Mubarak and indeed the book opens with him wondering how he can get rid of Mubarak, possibly violently. However Mubarak gives him credit at the café and, later on, proposes a scheme to him. It appears that Mubarak knows where some gold is buried in a grave and in return for his help digging up the gold, Mubarak will give him one third.
There is also the book dealer/illegal drinks seller, the police spy, who everyone knows is a spy, and the neighbouring woman who seems to flirt with him. However, on the whole, he hasvery limited relationships. I haven’t spoken to anyone for days. I’ve sold my phone. I don’t have anyone to call or anyone to call me. Throughout the past year, Mubarak is the only person I’ve spoken to for more than five minutes.
As well as money troubles and a lack of social and sexual interaction he has other issues. At one point the old man is in a bad way and he is taken to hospital while our hero spends a short while in a mental facility but he manages to get himself released.
He looks at various ways of getting any money. For example a local imam offers to rent his flat to provide sharia exorcisms, but it turns out the woman he is with is not just being exorcised.
But, as he points out, there’s no cure for old age. The old man gets older and in worse health and it is clear that he has not got long to go. It is also clear to our hero that he has no future here. So when the old man dies he tidies up the flat and leaves the door slightly open so that the neighbours can find him. When he sees a police car ptrolling around the area, he decides that it is time to move on.
The second part focuses on Rafik Nassiri. Rafik is an experienced detective and he has been given the job of finding out about Mr Nobody. His problem is that he can find nothing about him. Neither he nor we are sure of his real name nor does his a name appear in the files. He quizzes the locals but they are reluctant to give him any information, because they might be implicated in dirty deeds or because they are well aware that if they seem to know something, the police will focus on them so they pretend that they do not know him. He is given various descriptions of the man which seem, in many cases radically different from one another. He reckoned he must be dealing with an extraordinary man who had tricked everyone. There is also the issue as to whether the old man was murdered. The pathologist reckons he simply died of a heart attack and there is no evidence of any murder. In short Rafik can find very little of any use and his boss is somewhat critical of him.
We now follow the stories of Rafik, Mubarak and one of their associates, Ousmane La Gauche. All three have related problems – they have failed in their romantic lives, both in terms of their marriages and their inability to produce a son as well as in their professional lives. Mubarak’s café is not doing well. Ousmane has a bookshop but his profits do not even pay his rent. We learn that Rafik had a problem before his failure to find Mr Nobody. He got caught up in a case of corruption and went up against the rich and powerful, not a sensible thing to do. In this country corruption is rampant. It’s part of people’s lives and they have grown used to it. It’s a whole philosophy of government. The state is pretty much a giant free-for-all. And now he is lost. His greatest wish was to disappear or become invisible, to fade away and not leave any trace of himself, as the man who had become Nobody had managed to do, achieving complete heroism. For all of them it is going badly. People are bastards and the ones who win are the biggest bastards of all. Our three do not win, though Kada, the informer is described in this way: He was a loathsome man, willing to commit any outrage in return for money, and in his absence they called him an informer.
The eponymous Mr. Nobody is our unnamed hero in the first part. We know he does have a name as Rafik looks him up in the files, though neither we nor most of the other characters learn what his name is. The other three may have names but they may just as well be called Mr Nobody. Their relationships do not go well nor do their professional lives. In short, Algeria during this period is not a happy place to be for the ordinary person.
First published in 2019 Manshūrāt al-Ikhtilāf
First English translation in 2023 by Hoopoe
Translated by Jonathan Wright