by Kaouther Adimi
Publication Date: June 1, 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
A Bookshop in Algiers celebrates quixotic devotion and the love of books in the person of Edmond Charlot, who at the age of twenty founded Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth), the famous Algerian bookstore/publishing house/lending library. He more than fulfilled its motto 'by the young, for the young', discovering the twenty-four-year-old Albert Camus in 1937. His entire archive was twice destroyed by the French colonial forces, but despite financial difficulties and the vicissitudes of wars and revolutions, Charlot carried forward Les Vraies Richesses as a cultural hub of Algiers.
A Bookshop in Algiers interweaves Charlot's story with that of another twenty-year-old, Ryad, who is dispatched to the old shop in 2017 to empty it of books and repaint it. Ryad's no booklover, but old Abdallah, the bookshop's self-appointed, nearly illiterate guardian, opens the young man's mind.
Cutting brilliantly from Charlot to Ryad, from the 1930s to current times, from WWII to the bloody 1961 Free Algeria demonstrations in Paris, Adimi delicately packs a monumental history of intense political drama into her swift and poignant novel. But most of all, it's a hymn to the book and to the love of books.
Apparently I was in the mood to challenge myself when I went to the library. I’ve moved now from South Africa to North, to Algeria, and again find myself waffling between 4. and 4.5 stars.
Translated from the French, the writing via translation is beautiful, or, at least, beautifully engaging. The story is divided into flashbacks in the form of journal entries, written by the Edmund Charlot, the original owner of the Les Vraies Richesses (the Bookstore at the center of the story), a present-day timeline told in the third person, and a third that I don’t know how to describe; something akin to a transitional voice-over; NPR calls it a communal third person.
Over the course of this small book, the reader travels with Algeria and the bookstore through pre-war French colonialism, WWII, and Algeria’s war for independence, coming out into the present day in a city that feels like it’s in stasis (although there are early references to the economy suffering because Algeria’s oil reserves have dried up), and the people are holding their breath, waiting to see what happens next. Edmund Charlot comes across and a wonderful man; kind, generous, and someone who followed a vocation rather than a profession, and while I worried about his naiveté at the start of his career, and felt for him when things were so impossible in post-war Paris, I mourned with him at the senseless destruction that ultimately took him out of Algeria.
I ended up going with 4 stars because the ending did my head in. I really feel like I got a taste of Algiers, and I definitely felt Abdallah’s pain as the bookstore was slowly dismantled with so little feeling by the young intern, Ryad, sent to “throw everything away”. But the end … the end left me flipping pages and saying “what the hell?” to myself. I really want to be able to ask the author to explain herself. What was her motivation with this ending? Or perhaps I missed some nuance, some metaphor; perhaps I took then ending to literally. Either way, it was abrupt.
In spite of this, the book is the kind that will stay with me for some time to come, and I’ll “see” it in my memory as if it was something I experienced, rather than just read. I just have to forget about that ending.