Sometimes you just have to take an author's word for something. Whether it's a subject you know nothing about or a setting you're completely unfamiliar with you put yourself at the mercy of the mind behind the pen and hope he or she is being as accurate as fiction allows.
It becomes especially tricky when you start dealing with a culture that you have no real personal knowledge of, but that everybody in the world seems to have an opinion on. You can't open a paper, a journal, or go online these days without someone, somewhere providing an analysis of the Muslim mind whether they are qualified to or not.
It's hard not to develop a certain amount of prejudice under those circumstances, or at least to develop a picture that is coloured by news reports of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks. How then does one approach novels written about life set in the world which is known to us only through the eyes of reporters and politicians?
What type of glasses will we need to don that will allow us gaze past the web of our preconceived ideas. No matter what our personal sympathies maybe they aren't based on living the life the author has experienced, or the circumstances that characters in his or her book will endure.
Nothing we believe to be true will most likely have any bearing on reality, so the best that we can hope from ourselves is that we are brave enough to surrender to our guide, and to trust that our critical faculties that allow us to hear false notes can cross cultural borders. In other words try not to think of the Pink Elephant that is the cultural difference and read the book for what it is, not what it isn't.
In the case of expatriate Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra's police detective novel Morituri that is both easily accomplished and almost impossible at the same time. First of all Yasmina Khadra is a the pen name for an ex high ranking officer in the Algerian army named Mohammed Moulessehoul who was forced to assume an alias to prevent censorship while living in Algeria.
The fact that in Morituri his chief character is Superintendent Llob of the Algiers's police force is also an author involved in the fight against terrorism does give one pause for thought at Khadra's bias. But that is soon forgotten amidst the depths of the story, and the way in which he is able to entangle you so quickly into Llob's life.
It's open season on Police officers in Algiers as the story begins; the fundamentalists have been picking them off in ones and twos with car bombs and shootings outside of houses. Occasionally there will even be a set up where a tip is called into a station and a group of officers will be ambushed as they arrive to pick up a suspect.
Llob and every other officer have becoming almost terrified of their own shadows. But they aren't the only targets of the latest mullah to command some troops. Somebody is also taking out intellectuals, writers and entertainers. But is it fundamentalists behind these latest attacks, or just someone hiding behind their reputation for attacking those who may be accused of diluting the holy faith.
Superintendent Llob finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue involving the power brokers behind the scenes of Algeria in chaos. Men who think nothing of buying and selling government officials as they need them, are not above using violence if they need it to get the results they want. What can a lowly police officer do in the face of such power?
What they do the world over; investigate and follow leads no matter where they lead. From the homes of nabobs to whorehouses and slums Superintendent Llob follows the trail to the answers. He doesn't care whose toes he steps on as long as he can look at himself in the mirror in the morning, as long as he's alive to look in the mirror of course.
Khandra draws a picture of a country where fundamentalist fanaticism doesn't just apply to the ultra religious, but to all those who strive for power and a larger piece of the action. A small percentage of the people live in high opulence; splendour on par with Kublah Khan, while the rest of the populace huddles at their feet hoping that the scraps left over will be sufficient to live off.
Is it any wonder that the residents of these streets and alleys are susceptible to the promise of something better then what they have, even if it's only in the afterlife? How much different are those promises of paradise from the lead a good life and you'll receive you're reward in heaven promise offered on the other side of the world? Manipulation through religion is the same the world over, we just have to be willing to see the similarities in order to recognise that fact.
Morituri is a detective story, with all the characteristics you'd expect in place. Prisoners are interrogated; witnesses are interviewed, and clues are traced to dead ends or unexpected results just like they are in mysteries the world over. But played out against the backdrop of continual violence there is an undercurrent of constant threat that doesn't.
In Superindendent Llob, Khadra gives us a character who on one hand is the scared man who checks his car for booby traps and every day spends fifteen minutes looking out his apartment window before risking the walk to where he's parked his car. But once he is on the case he finds within himself the resources to walk into potential ambushes.
Middle aged, with almost adult children, he has seen too much of the world, and suffered along with the rest of Algeria the disappointments of postcolonial rule. But in spite of it all he continues, much as his country men and women do, in the face of adversity to do his job in the hopes it will make a difference, if to no one else at least to himself.
I'm in no position to judge the accuracy of Khadra's description of life in Algeria, but have no reason to doubt the veracity of his information. What I do know for a fact is that this is a well-written and exciting novel I can easily recommend to those who like a lot of grit in their mysteries. And in spite of any cultural differences that's all that really matters anyway.
(Originally posted January 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.