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Tahar Djaout: Les chercheurs d’os (The Bone Seekers)
The book really is about seeking bones and a very fine novel it is. It is set in a small Algerian village, shortly after Algerian independence. Many of the villagers go off to find the bones of their loved ones killed in the conflict and bring them back for burial in the village. The unnamed, adolescent hero of the story has to accompany an older relative on a journey longer than the others have taken to get back the bones of his older brother. The story is equally divided by the memories of the hero – about his brother and about how the village has changed – and the journey.
The village was a simple farming village. It has its share of characters – the village miser, the only adult male who is unmarried and, apparently, happy – but, on the whole, life takes its course without great difficulty. Then progress comes – trucks, cinema and finally the French army. The French army is ruthless and cruel. Part of the story is how the Algerians outwit their occupiers. The hero’s brother changed from being a soft, ordinary boy to being a man who is prepared to fight the French, thereby gaining his brother’s admiration, which he had not had before.
All of this is remembered during the journey, where the hero marvels at the small towns, where people queue up at government offices in expectation of a post-Liberation handout which isn’t going to come, where strangers invite them to sumptuous houses to stay the night and, of course, the noise. Finding his brother’s remains is difficult but they manage to do so. But our hero has now changed, touched by death and greater realisation of the awful price his country has paid to achieve its independence.
First published in French by Seuil 1984
First English translation by Diálogos Books 2018
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager