An elderly man, weary with life, sits in a bar in Oran telling a stranger how the random murder of his brother seventy years before has rendered him an outsider in his own country. Only seven when Musa was killed, his mother’s grief made her neglectful of his needs, binding him to her side and making him the object of her revenge. Spurned by his neighbours for his failure to join the resistance in the 1950s fight for Algerian independence, he’s now aghast at what his country’s become, especially the surge in religiosity (p65-66):
As far as I’m concerned, religion is public transportation I never use. This God – I like travelling in his direction, on foot if necessary, but I don’t want to take an organised trip.
Harun is bitter that, in the famous book, the murder victim is unnamed, his individuality unseen within the colonial term by which he is referred (p60):
Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes.
With the blurb’s promise that Harun
resolves to bring his brother out of obscurity … as he describes the events that led to his senseless murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach
I was expecting an Algerian Wide Sargasso Sea. Yet Harun was too young when his brother died to really know him, and the author is happy to let him get away with not knowing what took him to that beach that day, telling us instead (p61):
That detail’s an immeasurable mystery. You can get dizzy thinking about it and then wondering how a man could lose his name, plus his life, plus his own corpse, all in a single day. Yes, that’s it, basically. This story … it’s everybody’s story these days.
Which is, perhaps, the message of the book, but, despite the clever irony of Harun’s discovery that he’s not so different from the detested Meursault, that wasn’t quite enough for me. Winner of several prodigious prizes in the original French, my English version was translated by John Cullen and published by Oneworld who kindly furnished me with an advance copy.
It’s a meditation on the internal inconsistencies of our histories with the contrast of movement versus paralysis, and the migration narrative as one of loss versus opportunity. Yet the young woman feels burdened with the negative side of her family’s story (p112):
This journey I am undertaking, this strange country I find myself in, it all hurts. It’s beautiful, it’s interesting, it’s funny, but it hurts. This inheritance hurts. The things I bring with me without choosing to hurt. This conversation of ours, Mother, hurts too. The love story that exacted a pound of my flesh hurts. Grandpa’s story, your story, your torture, our exile; it all hurts. And, above all, it hurts to talk about the hurting. It hurts to write this story. Every new word I find hurts.
While the young woman immerses herself in Turkish culture, visiting the hamman and making a surprising faux pas at the mosque, and delves into the tragedy of her grandfather’s flight from the country, the Brazilian story is less contextualised. Given her mother’s experience of torture, that would be understandable in a memoir, but this is presented as fiction. For me, there were too many possible stories lightly sketched within the scant 160 pages and, although the themes are engaging, the prioritising of philosophising over action and description makes it harder for me to keep them in mind.
First published in Brazil, The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy won a prestigious prize for best debut and has been translated into French, Italian, Romanian, Spanish and Turkish. The English translation by Alison Entrekin is published by Scribe, who kindly provided my review copy.