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.
It’s no surprise therefore to find this is the emotion at the heart of Ahlam Mosteghanami‘s award winning novel Memory in the Flesh. Though you shouldn’t pick up this book expecting love of the hearts and flowers variety. This is a novel about the pain and loss of love. 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.
Ahlam Mosteghanami tells her story 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 where the novel began to fall apart for me. 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. Ahlam Mosteghanami’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. Instead of dazzling and entrancing me as a reader, I found the repeated use of similies and metaphors 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 considered a landmark book in the history of this part of the world. It’s the first book written in Arabic by an Algerian woman. In writing in Arabic, Ahlam Mosteghanami was making her stance against her country’s colonial heritage and its semi official language of French. Her dedication (to her father Malek Haddad) makes evident her point of view.
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 Mosteghanami had only focused on the experience of people like Malek and Khalid, champions of the cause of freedom and independence, I would have found reading her novel a more enriching experience.
Memory In The Flesh by Ahlam Mosteghanami: End Notes
About the Book: Memory In The Flesh was published first in Beirut by Dar al adab in 1993 under the title Zakirat el Jassad. It was well received, becoming the recipient of the Naguib Mahfouz literary prize in 1998. The novel was not available in English until translated by the American University of Cairo in 2000. Bloomsbury Publishing issued a new edition under the title of The Bridges of Constantine) in 2013.
Mosteghanami went on to write two sequels: Fawda el Hawas (The Chaos of Senses) in 1997 and Aber Sareer (Bed Hopper) in 2003.
About the Author: Ahlam Mosteghanami was born in Tunis, the daughter of a militant political activist who was forced into exile during the Algerian liberation war. Following independence, the family returned to Algeria where her family secured high office in the country’s first independent government.
Mosteghanami became a radio host, a household name with a show on national radio at the age of 17. She studied at the Sorbonne in Paris then moved to the Lebanon with her husband and children.
Memory In The Flesh was her first published novel. She’s now written four in all, together with several poetry anthologies.
Why Did I Read This Book? I was looking for an Algerian author as part of my World of Literature project. I could have taken the easy path and gone for Albert Camus but that seemed too obvious a choice. There were a few authors I came across including the very prolific Mohammed Dib but a lot of these writers don’t have English translations, or if they, do they’re either hard to come by or expensive.
Ahlam Mosteghanami (sometimes her first name is spelled Ahlem) was one of the few I could lay my hands on. The fact it was described as a landmark in Algerian fiction sold it to me.
By Way of Explanation… I first posted this review in 2013. I’m gradually revisiting older posts, changing from the old classic editor to the new Gutenburg block editor . I’m hoping this will make it easier for me to switch to a Gutenburg-compatible theme. This updated version incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover. Formatting has been changed to improve readability.