Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 20, 2020

The Bookshop in Algiers, by Kaouther Adimi, translated by Chris Andrews

In the leadup to #WITmonth hosted by Meytal at Biblio, I chose a book celebrating the importance of books by Algerian author Kaouther Adimi.  A Bookshop in Algiers  is a short book which you can read in a day, but it is rich in ideas — and for Australians and others who may not know much about French colonialism in Africa, it paints a different picture to the romantic France of tourist brochures.

A Bookshop in Algiers begins in 2017, inviting the reader to go in search of the bookshop.  The sombre tone is foreshadowed by one word in the last sentence of the first paragraph.

As soon as you arrive in Algiers, you will have to tackle the steep streets, climb and then descend.  You will come out onto Didouche Mourad—so many alleyways off to each side, like hundreds of intersecting stories—a few steps away from a bridge that is favoured by suicides and lovers alike.  (p.1)

So, no, this is not another sentimental or nostalgic book about the romance of bookshops.  The bookseller who features in this book does have a passion for books but he’s also a subversive and heroic publisher. This is the blurb:

In 1936, a young dreamer named Edmond Charlot opened a modest bookshop in Algiers. Once the heart of Algerian cultural life, where Camus launched his first book and the Free French printed propaganda during the war, Charlot’s beloved bookshop has been closed for decades, living on as a government lending library. Now it is to be shuttered forever. But as a young man named Ryad empties it of its books, he begins to understand that a bookshop can be much more than just a shop that sells books.

A Bookshop in Algiers charts the changing fortunes of Charlot’s bookshop through the political drama of Algeria’s turbulent twentieth century of war, revolution and independence. It is a moving celebration of books, bookshops and of those who dare to dream.

Edmond Charlot (1915-2004) was a real person, with a substantial Wikipedia entry which pays homage to his remarkable career as a publisher and editor.  Adimi tells his story through short chapters summarising his activities from when he scrounged together the money for his bookshop in 1930, and edited entries from his notebooks from 1936 onward.  As in real life, the Charlot of the story names the premises Les Vraies Richesses (True Riches) which was the title of a book by the famous writer Jean Giono.  He also operates a subscription library of great value to disadvantaged readers (many of whom have had heroic struggles to achieve literacy under the discriminatory French administration).

The parallel story of Ryad, an engineering graduate employed in a phony internship in 2017 to clear out the shop ready for redevelopment, reveals him to be the antithesis of Charlot.  Ryad is shallow, impatient, and ignorant, and he hates books.  He represents a future I do not want to see, and I confess to a most enjoyable schadenfreude reading about how the character of Abdallah has Ryad’s measure and the local community gangs up on him so that no one will sell him the paint that he needs to tidy up the shop.

Charlot loves books.  He publishes a literary magazine, and he publishes many now famous authors, some unfamiliar to me but others I know such as André Gide and Albert Camus, who can often be seen sitting on his doorstep doing some editing.  He publishes Gertrude Stein, who repays the favour by mouthing off about him in an interview, describing him as a dynamic and resistant editor she was proud to work with.  Vichy France, of course, reacted to the word “resistant” and her careless words bring Charlot the unwelcome attention of the French authorities, who thought he was a Gaullist and a communist sympathiser.

So Charlot does a stint in prison.  And when he gets out he struggles with paper and ink shortages, a catastrophic decline in sales and the general chaos of war.  But he also fights with the allies against Hitler, expecting that France would honour its promise to give Algeria its independence afterwards.

Which they didn’t do.  Which led to the messy, brutal Algerian War from 1954-1962.  Somehow the bookshop survives the chaos and the terror until it is reduced to being a government lending library with declining usage, and its demise is inevitable.  There’s more to the story than this: there are professional conflicts and betrayals; there is Charlot’s inadequacy with finances; and there is a branch office in France as well.  It’s surprising how much is packed into this novella of only 146 pages.

In a book about books, there are always going to be allusions to unfamiliar authors but I had a lucky moment of synchronicity during my reading.  Adimi refers to a book published by Charlot in Algeria during the Occupation of France: it was called le Silence de la mer (The Silence of the Sea) and it was written in Paris in 1942 by Jean Bruller under the pseudonym “Vercors” as an act of resistance.  Widely circulated undercover by the Resistance, le Silence de la mer is about a German soldier billeted with a young woman and her uncle in Occupied France, and how they refuse to acknowledge his presence.  They never speak to him, and he, a former composer, is worn down by their contempt and hostility and gradually realises the real intentions of the Nazis, and decides that the only way he can retain his integrity is to depart for the Russian Front, which meant almost certain death.  The book as a symbol of resistance is explained in the book I have read just two days ago: Caroline Moorehead’s A Train in Winter (see here) — without which I would have known nothing about it or why it was so brave of Charlot to publish it.

In the long run, the pen has always been mightier than the sword, but A Bookshop in Algiers is a salutary reminder that we need to guard against the demise of books, reading and writing.

Author: Kaouther Adimi
Title: A Bookshop in Algiers
Translated from the French by Chris Andrews
Cover art by Sam Kalda and art direction by Steve Panton
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail, an imprint of Profile Books UK, 2020, first published as Nos richesses, 2017
ISBN: 9781788164696, hbk., 146 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia

Availability: A Bookshop in Algiers should be readily available in the UK and for Australian buyers, at the time I looked, Readings had copies of this in stock (RRP $27.99AUD).

 


Responses

  1. Vercors rang a bell. I know him as a writer of science fiction. I’m sure I have his novel Borderline somewhere on my shelves (in the SF bookcase under ‘V’, who would have guessed). First pub. in English 1953. I think it uses a new almost human species to discuss racism under Hitler. I might have to review it.

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    • Yes, please do!
      My French teacher was impressed when I talked about Vercors in class today and she’s going to see if she can find a cheaper copy of it, everywhere I looked it was *very* expensive.

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  2. Oh, this sounds wonderful, Lisa. I’ve only recently started to get to grips with the horrors of what happened in Algeria, via reading about Camus, but I’d not heard of Charlot. Adding this to the wishlist!!

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    • This is the first book I’ve ever read by an Algerian. Like you, I knew about Algeria only through the lens of Camus

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with Kaggsy about this book’s appeal. Your account made me think of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451- books as a shored-up resistance to tyranny.

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    • Yes, you’re right…
      That’s why colonial powers like the Dutch and the French made sure to restrict access to schools; they didn’t want people reading. It’s interesting that the Brits did not. At least, not in India, where they had an educated class of Indian bureaucrats, and in Australia, where, for all their deficiencies, mission schools did teach Indigenous children to read, and there are examples of Indigenous letter writing in the PEN Macquarie Anthology from the C19th. I’m not sure about other British colonial possessions, such as South Africa.

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  4. […] I get travel ads for the places I visit in my reading: this month I have ‘been to’ Algiers and Krishnapur in India but of course (like any other sensible person’s) my travel plans are […]

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  5. I have this one sitting on the shelf. I’m glad to hear it’s good, I’ll get to it in the coming weeks, I hope.

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