Monday, February 28, 2011

Autumn of the Phantoms

Yasmina Khadra (pseudonym of Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul) closes the circle on his Superintendent Brahim Llob series with this third book in the series, Autumn of the Phantoms.  Superintendent Llob’s tendency to speak his mind as bluntly with his superiors as with the criminals he chases has made him a marked man in present-day Algeria.  Not only does he have to worry about Muslim terrorists wanting to assassinate him; he has to fear the same from those in power inside his own police department.  Llob knows too much, talks too much about it, and is determined to go down swinging if he has to go down at all.

Now, it seems, his superiors have the perfect excuse to push Llob out the door: his novel, Morituri, in which the Superintendent exposed the corruptness of practically everyone with any power or influence in Algiers, including the police.  First fired, and then allowed to retire (with one of the most surreal retirement tributes imaginable), Superintendent Llob now has to decide what to do with the rest of his life.  Common sense dictates that he move to the countryside with his wife where, hopefully, he will no longer be a likely target for assassination.  But first, Llob must attend the funeral of one of his oldest friends, a man tortured and killed by those who want to do the same to Llob.  What happens after the funeral – to Llob and the local villagers, terrible as it is, is typical of what happened all over Algeria during the worst of the country’s so-called civil war.

Yasmina Khadra captures the paranoia and terror of Algeria’s recent religiously inspired bloodletting to such a degree that those already familiar with its details will cringe as they read the author’s account of what happened on a nightly basis to those unable to protect themselves from the terrorists - and from the soldiers and policemen charged with protecting them.  As one character put it as life went on and the carnage was ignored: “Here, young girls are raped and beheaded, children are maimed by bombs, whole families are hacked to pieces every night, and we behave as if nothing’s going on.”

Criminals and religious fanatics thrive in this opportunity to rape, murder, steal, and run wild in ways almost unimaginable.  The army and the police are so overwhelmed that many in their ranks grow to be as vicious as those they are supposed to control.  Civilians are the most unfortunate because they can trust neither the “bad guys” nor the supposed “good guys.”

Perhaps, as one of Superintendent Llob’s friends reflects, what hurts most is the realization that all the violence comes from fellow Algerians.  He said: 
“We’ve been taught to hate ever since we came into the world; we were turned from the Truth. We’re taught hatred of the Other, hatred of the Absent and the Foreign – a manufactured hatred, in short. And look, Brahim, just look. Who’s burning our schools today, who’s killing our brothers and neighbors who’s beheading our intellectuals, who’s putting our land to fire and the sword? Aliens? Malaysians? Animists? Christians? … They’re Algerians, just Algerians, who not so long ago were belting out the national anthem in our stadiums, who rushed in the thousands to help the victims of disasters and mobilized impressively for every telethon. And now look. Do you recognize yourself in them? – I don’t, not at all…My race of people, Brahim, are all those who, from one end of the world to the other, refuse to allow these monsters to be forgiven.”
I was fortunate to spend several years working in Algeria. What I read in Algerian newspapers (and what my Algerian friends told me) about the slaughter of whole villages in one bloody night, the beheadings of men in front of their families, the hijacking of buses filled with men who would be murdered on their way to work, and the beheadings of foreign workers, is even worse than what Khadra describes in Autumn of the Phantoms. I do believe that there are thousands of Algerians that “refuse to allow these monsters to be forgiven.” Pray that they survive long enough to get back their country.

Rated at: 4.5

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