Memory in the Flesh: Book Review
Where would novelists be if they couldn’t write about love? Platonic love; young love; second-time-around love; lost love; unrequited love; love for one’s country: you name it, there’s a novel (probably more like hundreds of them) in which love will feature in some guise or other.
Love is at the heart of Ahlam Mosteghan‘s award winning novel Memory in the Flesh. It’s not the hearts and flowers variety however. This is a novel about pain and loss. The searing pain felt when a relationship ends. The pain experienced from the discovery that an ideal for which you fought has come to nothing.
It’s a story told from the perspective of Khalid, a former Algerian freedom fighter who lost an arm in the struggle for his country’s independence from France. Exiled in Paris he turned to painting where he became a respected artist. The city is where he met the daughter of a former comrade in arms, and fell in love. Ahlam (yes she has the same name as the author) is half his age, someone Khalid remembers as a baby.
When the book opens, the relationship is over. Khalid is writing a book about his infatuation with Ahlam. He feels betrayed by his former lover who has already published a book about the affair. He wants to set the record straight. So he spends much of the time trying to tell us just how much he loved her and how she made him feel.
And therin lies the major flaw of the novel. It takes a skilled novelist to capture the full intensity of one person’s feelings for another and to help us understand the essential nature of a person we have never met in the flesh. Mosteghan’s approach is to use analogies – layer upon layer of them and many of them so fanciful they sound nonsensical.
One minute Ahlam is a colour, the next she is compared to the bridges of Algeria that Ahlam repeatedly paints but only a few pages later we learn she is “like the waters of Granada, transparent like nostalgia with a distinctive taste…” Whatever that means. It’s poetic but instead of dazzling and entrancing me as a reader, I found it increasingly tedious.
Sadly, Ahlam’s minute dissection of his love overwhelms the more interesting aspect of the book which deals with the loss of idealism. The final section sees Khalid make his first return visit to his home city of Constantine, expecting to see how his young man’s dreams have been fulfilled in this now independent nation. Instead he discovers the city has lost its soul, drained of colour and ambition. It is now only a city ‘ that woke up the way it went to bed, wearing the same sad and gloomy colours.’
Memory in the Flesh is a landmark book in the history of this part of the world. It is the first book written in Arabic by an Algerian woman. In writing in Arabic, Mosteghan is making her stance against her country’s colonial heritage and its semi official language of French. Her dedication (to her father Malek Haddad) makes her point of view evident.
“To the memory of Malek Haddad, son of Constantine, who swore after the independence of Algeria not to write in a language that was not his. The blank page assassinated him. He died by the might of his silence to become a martyr of the Arabic language and the first writer ever to be silent, grieving, and passionate on its behalf.”
If she had only focused on the experience of people like Malek and Khalid, champions of the cause of freedom and independence, reading her novel would have been a more enriching experience.