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Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin

Our narrator, Yazid, is the only one of his siblings to have remained in Algeria after the civil war. His five younger siblings have scattered – to San Francisco, to Montreal (or is it Ottawa? he is not sure), to Paris and to Marseilles. Hédi, the youngest and apple of his mother’s eye, is in Pakistan with the Taliban. Yazid is left looking after their mother, Karima, who has cancer. Indeed, the other siblings rarely seem to contact her and she is sure that it is because of a fault with Yazid’s computer but he knows it is just because of their busy lives, well removed from Algeria and its plight. However, she is getting worse and will probably die soon. Yazid is determined that she will not die in miserable Algerian surroundings.

Nazim has kindly agreed to put them up in his sumptuous Parisian house, pay for a first-class fare for Karima and Yazid and provide quality end-of-life care for Karima, so she can see her children for the last time, even Hédi. But it is not to be. She falls into a coma on the plane journey and never comes out of it, dying seven days later, without seeing her children. She has given one last request to the narrator: Go back to Rue Darwin, the street on which they grew up and which he has never returned to, though, given she is in a coma, he is not sure how she transmitted this message.

Six months after her death, Yazid is now determined to write about what he calls his Holy Week, his return to Rue Darwin (which is now called Rue Benzined Mohamed – Yazid has no idea who Benzined Mohamed is and I can find nothing about him). However, before we get there, we are going to get his full life story which turns out to be a bit more complicated than we had anticipated.

We learn that he moved to Rue Darwin when he was eight years old, in 1957 (which makes him the same age as Boualem Sansal). He came from a small village, Bordj Dakir, which no-one in Algiers had heard of, and barely knew his mother, his step-father and his half-sister. The other siblings were born later and, on the whole, he did not get on with them. As a result, living in Belcourt, where Rue Darwin was, was somewhat strange for him, though it did have one other future famous inhabitant – Albert Camus.

He then takes us back three years. He and his father and mother were all living in Bordj Dakir. His father, Kader, essentially worked for his mother, Yazid’s grandmother. She was head of the Kadri clan, which owned extensive properties in Algeria, Morocco and elsewhere, which she regularly visited. She had become head of the clan, aged eighteen, the first woman head of the clan. The clan was not entirely happy but there was no other obvious successor so she got the job and had been a splendid success. She is called Sadia, but is known as Djéda (= grandmother). There was one black mark. She had realised that the way to make money was prostitution and the clan owned a chain of brothels. We learn a bit about the horrors of these brothels.

However, Kader is killed in a car crash. At this point we learn that he was in fact the adopted son of Djéda (she did not want to be bothered with having a husband.) Yazid is moved into Djéda’s massive house, where he lives with various other children, whose role is not clear, including Faïza, who tells him much more about his origins and Daoud, whom he particularly gets on with. Meanwhile, Karima, his mother, seems to have disappeared. He struggles in his grandmother’s house, getting educated by a governess, till Karima has him rescued and he moves to Rue Darwin.

However, as I mentioned, the story is far more complicated than it first seems, both before his transfer to Rue Darwin and afterwards. Firstly, are Karima and Kader his real parents and, if not, who are his real parents? What exactly is his relationship with Djéda and why, when he escapes, does she not track him down with her extensive networks of spies and informants? When he goes back, six years later, when he is fourteen and bumps into Faïza in Algiers, why does he not stay? He seems to be Djéda’s heir apparent but, if that is the case, why does he seem to reject this rich legacy? What happened to Daoud – who seems to have gone off to France – and why? And how has Faïza managed to become so successful and is she Djéda’s heir(ess) apparent? And did Djéda die a natural death or was she murdered and, if so, by whom and why?

Sansal keeps us guessing right to the end of the book but, in the meantime we essentially follow the story of Algeria, in particular through its various wars. Sansal spends considerable time damning all the wars, from the Algerian war of Independence to the Israel-Arab Wars. Indeed, Yazid nearly took part in the latter war. He was called up and trained and the Algerians were all ready to go off to fight, essentially, to finish off what was left of the Israelis. They were even encouraged, in quite bloodthirsty terms, by a personal visit from President Boumédiène. It did not quite go to plan and the Algerians returned home, with their tails between their legs, another failed Algerian War. In short, they lost a war without fighting. All the wars – and Sansal goes through most of them – end up by being bad for the people and lead not to any freedom but to greater repression.

He also brings religion into it and points that the three religions practised in Algeria, while the French were still there – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – could not, after the Revolution, function together. L’Algérie n’est pas l’ONU, mais plutôt Armageddon, la colline démoniaque, il y avait toujours un fou pour allumer la mèche, un autre pour crier haro et un troisième pour jeter la pierre. Chacun était le bouc émissaire de l’autre, et le pays n’était pas assez grand pour nous contenir tous les trois avec nos péchés et nos moutons. [Algeria is not the UN but, rather, Armageddon, the demoniacal hill. There was always a madman to light the touchpaper, another to raise a hue and cry and a third to throw the stone. Each one was the scapegoat of the other and the country was not big enough to contain all three, with our sins and our flocks].

Yazid’s siblings managed to get away, all leaving on the pretext that they were going to acquire skills to help the Revolution and then not returning and making their lives elsewhere. Yazid stays. Why? To help his mother, of course, but also because, despite his intense hatred for the political system(s) of his country (a feeling shared by Sansal, who has also chosen to stay in Algeria), he still feels some attachment to the country.

This ia very fine book indeed, both in showing us what life in Algeria is like but also telling a complex but well-written story which helps to illustrate some of Algeria’s problems. Ultimately, his message is that we do not have to love our country or, at least, its political system, but we should stick close to those we love and those that love, as that is the only way to survive.

Publishing history

First published in French by Gallimard in 2011
No English translation
Published in Dutch as Terug naar de rue Darwin by De Geus in 2013
Translated by Jan Versteeg
Published in German as Rue Darwin by Merlin in 2012
Translated by Christiane Kayser
Published in Spanish as Rue Darwin by Alianza in 2013
Translated by Wenceslao-Carlos Lozano
Also published in Danish