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José Carlos Llop: El mensajero de Argel [The Messenger from Algiers]

In 1991, some mountaineers found a corpse in the Italian Alps. They assumed it was the body of a professor of music, who had recently been lost in the area. It turned out to be the mummified corpse of a man who died over 5000 years ago. Llop or, rather, his narrator, Carlos Orfila Klein, uses this as a metaphor for what is the subject of this book, the loss of memory, the recovery of memories and memories”out of time” (i.e. the memories of old people who remember the past clearly but not the present). At this time, Orfila, who has yet to tell us his name, is writing a dissertation on Carlos de Beistegui, the eccentric collector, who was another man who traded in memories of a time past, though, as we later find out, de Beistegui has another role to play.

We then jump twenty years. Orfila, who now gives us his name, is working in radio in an unnamed coastal town, which could be anywhere, as he says, but is, in fact, in Europe. He is forty-two years old and separated from his wife. He just has one show, broadcast late on Saturday nights. It is called La Morgue. In it he interviews old people who have a story to tell of times past. He is particularly interested in the people whom he calls out of time. One of the reasons for doing so is that they can, of course, recuperate the past, in comparison to the present time where everything is changing. Vivimos en la inestabilidad permanente [We live in permanent instability], he says.

We get several examples of these old people and their memories. For example, there is the old woman who remembers her father who worked as a sculptor for banks, designing the lush interiors that are now merely done out in plastic. Every years, he would throw up a coin in the air and said if it was heads, he would to Peru and if tails to China. What Peru actually meant was that he would go and see his girlfriend, while China meant that he would go and see his drinking buddies. The old woman has come because the radio station is on Peru Street. Orfila rarely indulges in sex but one day he meets K, a young Vietnamese woman who needs a place for the night. She stays and they have sex. She reminds him of his mother.

This is one thing that starts a new development – who Orfila’s family were and what happened to them. The second thing is his meeting with a man who is called (or calls himself) Jorge Baker who appears on Orfila’s programme. When he sees him, Orfila immediately recognises him. He is a man who used to come to his grandparents’ house twice a year – they rarely had visitors – and an envelope was given to him. Orfila’s grandmother called him The Messenger from Algiers. Orfila challenges him but he denies knowing anyone called Klein (the family name) or having been to the house of Orfila’s grandparents. Like many other old people, his reminiscences take him far back, well before he was born. In his case, he talks about the Asian monarchies who used to send their sons to school in Europe, primarily England and France. He tells Orfila he now runs an emporium called the Buenos Aires Bazaar and encourages Orfila to visit. As he leaves, there is an explosion nearby. (There had been several bomb attacks in the town and a lot of police activity.)

We gradually learn of Orfila’s early life. His parents were counter-culture types, his father looking like Steve Winwood and playing guitar. The pair ran a bar called Aquarius. His father disappeared one day. We later learn that he had been arrested for smuggling drugs into Portugal and spent two years in prison. After his release, he disappeared. He left a poem he had written, whose last line was La pasión de mi vida ha sido el miedo [The passion of my life had been fear]. His mother later also left and Orfila had to go and live with his grandparents. They had a house up in the hills and a flat in town. His grandfather was a doctor. When Orfila goes to visit Baker at his bazaar, Baker shows him a lot of strange objects which he has hidden away, including a lot of Russian items. Orfila recognises one or two that belonged to his parents . By now, we learn that Baker was, indeed, the Messenger from Algiers. Gradually, a complicated plot involving art smuggling in World War II, the Gestapo, Franco, drugs, the Algerian War and Carlos de Beistegui emerges.

This is a something of a dual novel. It starts off by seeming to be a novel about memory and recovered memory and lost memories but then, while, to some degree keeping to this theme, veers into a story about Carlos Orfila trying to find out what happened to his parents and where they went to and, then, what dirty deeds his grandfather was up to, during the war and after, and the role of the Messenger of Algiers in these events. Indeed, it essentially becomes a quasi-thriller, not least with bombs going off everywhere Jorge Baker seems to go. I had the feeling that this had the makings of a really good novel but ends up being a worthwhile read but certainly not a great one.

Publishing history

First published in Spanish 2005 by Destino
No English translation
First published in French as Le messager d’Alger by J Chambon in 2006
Translated by Edmond Raillard