Telling a War That Does Not Speak its Name: Yasmina Khadra’s Noir Novels


Mohamed Aït-Aarab

University of Réunion

D.I.R.E. Research Centre (Déplacements, Identités, Regards, Écritures)




On the 26th of December 1991, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut, Islamic Salvation Front) won the first round of the Algerian legislative elections. Following the resignation of President Chadli Benjedid on the 11th of January 1992, a State Commission was set up under a well-known figure from the war for independence, Mohamed Boudiaf. The second round of the elections was indefinitely postponed. There would follow seven years of ‘dirty’ war, a nameless war, an “invisible war” (Stora). Even today there remain shadowy areas, not in relation to the reality of the crimes committed, but regarding those who carried them out and those who ordered them. Of course, we now know that Mustafa Bouyali’s MIA (Mouvement Islamique Armé, Armed Islamic Movement), along with Abdelhak Layada’s GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé, Armed Islamic Group) were infiltrated by the security services (the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, formerly Sécurité Militaire); these groups were arguably the creations (or the creatures) of the Algerian secret services. But how many assassinations, both attempted and successful, and political decisions, remain incomprehensible, given that this was a period of pretence, of widespread untruths, manipulation, provocation and coldly planned massacres?[1] Researchers are still struggling to retrace this recent history, since a large number of the key players from this painful period are life members of the nomenklatura and still hold sinecure posts in the state apparatus. It is in their interest to ensure that this page of Algerian history remains opaque, to prevent tongues from loosening and archives from being consulted.

No society can be built and prosper on a foundation of lies or amnesia. Deliberate blindness gives rise to human constructions that sooner or later implode in the face of social demands for truth and justice. It is important to tell stories, our stories, as a heuristic imperative to build what Paul Ricœur (1988) has called “narrative identity”.

Because it carries affect and is fluid, collective memory must sooner or later be relayed by history. However, in the absence of academic research yet to be carried out, story-telling can offer significant help in overcoming the silences of the time and in articulating the unspoken elements of a particular historical situation. In the face of an atmosphere of generalised suspicion and of a cover-up carefully orchestrated by the various protagonists in a conflict of unprecedented violence,[2] literature may provide a way to lift the veil, to shine a spotlight on what some would wish to hide, to “strip naked the obscene face of reality” (Rallo Ditche) or, as Milan Kundera writes, to tear the curtain:

A magic curtain, woven from legends, hung before the world. Cervantes sent Don Quixote on his travels and tore the curtain. The world opened out in front of the knight errant in all the comic nudity of its prose. […] By tearing the curtain of pre-interpretation, Cervantes launched this new art form; his destructive gesture is reflected and continued in every novel worthy of the name; it is the fundamental mark of the art of the novel… (Kundera 2005, pp. 110-11)

The noir novel, rooted as it is in times of crisis, is the best tool for taking the pulse of a sick society because it is, as Jean-Patrick Manchette puts it, “a novel of social intervention” (Naudillon), that is to say, a form of self-examination, a way to consider a universe in the grip of elusive, murderous demons. Where the detective or clue-puzzle novel favours intellectual speculation and sedentary reflection on the part of the investigator who, through a process of analysis and deduction, manages to unravel the threads of an apparently insoluble mystery, the noir novel presents itself as the story of a nomadic investigation into an order disturbed by an initial misdeed. Where the detective novel favours discourse (Lacassin 1993, p. 42), the noir novel gives priority to observation based on an aesthetics of a moving quest/inquiry. Instead of the immobility of the armchair detective, the investigator in the noir novel is in constant movement. As Alain Lacombe has put it, the investigator in the noir novel is a “traveller through the city’s labyrinth” (Lacombe 1975, p. 87).

Official Algerian history is strangely evasive where the period 1992 to 1999 is concerned (from the disruption of the electoral process by the Algerian military, who feared the success of Abbassi Madani and Ali Belhadj’s FIS, up to the election as President of the Republic of Abdelaziz Boutflika, who had parliament adopt an amnesty law known as the “civil concord”).  Yasmina Khadra’s novels[3] are thus a response to a particular collective expectation (Dubois 1992), to Algerians’ need to understand how and why their country could sink into barbarity. The present study will focus not just on the ‘Llobian’ trilogy published in 1997 and 1998: Morituri, Double blanc and L’Automne des chimères, but will also include La Part du mort, Commissaire Brahim Llob’s final investigation, published some time later in 2004.[4] The events that took place between 1992 and 1999 and which provide the narrative framework for the detective trilogy are not there by chance. They are a creatio ex materia anchored in a socio-political and economic base that Khadra analyses in detail in La Part du mort through the investigation jointly led by Llob and the academic and historian Soria Karadach. The final paragraph of the book underlines the thematic and ideological links between this novel and the three others:

In the face of the anger of a people demanding work and the minimum standards necessary for a decent life, the government will offer a multiparty political system and a dubious democracy that will open the doors to Islamic fundamentalism, creating the ideal conditions to unleash one of the most horrific civil wars ever seen in the Mediterranean… (PM, p. 426)

The title of Quatuor algérien [Algerian quartet] under which Gallimard published the four novels in question in a single volume in 2008, refers to an Algeria in the throes of demonstrations, war, and random assassination attempts. Khadra chooses the noir novel, a genre which is both highly codified and yet equally open to any and all innovations, to hammer home his point in the name of all the “victims whose suffering cries out less for vengeance than to be told” (Ricœur 1985, p. 355). Between (hi)story and memory,[5] fictionalisation and realism, Khadra’s texts aim to transcend the mere detective story and achieve what we might, following Ricœur, call a representation of historical time. In this way the author, who provokes both reading and reflection, contributes to the development of a strong national narrative identity that will replace the fragmentary and piecemeal identity haphazardly built upon lies and falsifications. In order to do this, he needs a narrative double who may sometimes conduct himself like a hardboiled detective in order to reveal the foul underbelly of history. But any war, and even more so one which does not speak its name, leaves not just physical injuries but gaping moral wounds that writing attempts to heal as best it can.

Configuring historical time

“To recount the identity of an individual or a community is to answer the question: who carried out this act? who is the agent, the initiator?” (Ricœur 1985, p. 355). From the very first days of its independence, Algeria lived on a historical fiction, the truncated and distorted national story of a Muslim, Arab nation, from which any Kabyle, Christian or Jewish components are excluded, struggling – in a union that excludes French sympathisers who are clearly a traitorous minority – against colonial occupation. In order to promote this story of victory, the Algerian state, through its Ministry of Information and Culture, created a number of initiatives: a journal (Promesses [Promises], published between 1969 and 1974), a publishing house (which would later become the E.N.A.L., Entreprise Nationale du Livre) and literary prizes to be awarded to the most patriotic works. In short, artists of all kinds were invited to serve the political cause, something which rarely leads to masterpieces.[6]

It was thus a falsified version of history that was offered to Algerian citizens, and particularly the younger generations. This may well be why, in La Part du mort, Llob’s associate, Soria Karadach, is a historian, academic and journalist. They must both wade through “a terrific historical vomiting” (PM, p. 258) in order to reveal the depravity of Haj Thobane, a member of the regime who is above the law.

Khadra’s project is thus to construct history, or as Làszlo Tengelyi has put it, to construct “temporal experience through the linguistic structures of the story” (Tengelyi 2011, p. 611). Khadra’s adoption of painful and complex episodes from Algerian history in his plots must be understood as a civic act, and an attempt to reappropriate a confiscated story:

In Algerian memory, we have never really imagined reconciliation with our truth. And what salvation could be possible for a nation when the cream of her sons, those who are supposed to awaken our consciences, begin by betraying their own?          (PM, p. 19).

If the writer’s task is to configure history, the reader’s must be to reconfigure it. In Khadra’s case, the reception of the work is of great importance. Because he holds the intellectual’s role in such high esteem,[7] Khadra calls on his reader to participate in deciphering the text. In order to do this, he or she must hold all the cards. This is the task the narrator, Brahim Llob, dedicates himself to, through multiple explanatory interventions, comments, and first-person reflections in the form of parenthetical explanations or long, speculative paragraphs. Far from slowing down the story with unwelcome preaching, these pauses in the narrative are an integral part of Khadra’s writing strategy, in which the police investigation is merely the pre-text for developing a truthful discourse about Algeria’s dark years, the ‘years of lead’ between 1992 and 1999.

The Llob / Karadach pairing is to some extent symbolic of the connections between fiction and history, two disciplines with a shared objective – to reconstruct the experience of lived time. This is even more of a duty for Algerians, including Llob himself, as he says: “Even today, I don’t understand. I grope my way forward even in the full light of day” (AC, p. 17). They have lived through this period without understanding anything, focused entirely on saving themselves. And since the only past time is time retold (Ricœur 1985, p. 349), the purpose of Khadra’s narrative is to shine a bright, even blinding light into the shadowy zones of Algerian history. As is the case with other postcolonial writers – Cameroon’s Mongo Beti, for example – in Khadra’s work the disturbances of the present day can only be understood in reference to the events that led to a shaky decolonisation process. There is a trigger event to be identified: the massacre of the Just, “the terrorised women and little ones fleeing to the mountains from which they would never return” (PM, p. 255) – and independence snatched away: “We got off to a bad start as far back as 1954. Our revolution was a fiasco; the proof is that, after 30 years of independence we’re faced with regression, totalitarianism, and the triumph of mediocrity”             (M, p. 177).

The horrific episode Llob and Karadach are investigating is in many ways epoch-making, one of those events that mark history and that a community remembers because they “give rise to feelings of considerable ethical intensity, manifested either as fervent commemoration or as loathing, indignation, regret or compassion, or even the call for forgiveness” (Ricœur 1985, p. 272). Haj Thobane, an extremely wealthy and influential character, with limitless power to intervene on an economic or political level, is in this sense emblematic of the civil and military nomenklatura that, starting in 1962, seized control of all the corridors of power. His fall, all the more shattering for being unexpected, like Abderrahmane Kaak’s suicide at the end of Double Blank, or the assassination of Ghoul Malek on the closing page of Morituri, takes on an allegorical dimension, signalling the end of impunity for those who “have been living off All Saints’ Day” (PM, p. 69).[8]

It can be very tempting to read Khadra’s work as historical detective stories, but these belong to a particular genre that follows different rules. Where these novels merely place an investigation within a precisely dated timeframe, such as Christie’s Death Comes as an End, Khadra follows the example of Manchette in L’Affaire N’Gustro [The N’Gustro Affair] or of Didier Daeninckx in Meurtres pour mémoire [Murder in Memoriam], in striving to construct an Algerian memory of the 1990-1999 period. Llob’s investigations are intended to give meaning to a historical moment marked by the most barbarous violence. The novels are full of increasingly monstrous and bloody murders, but this is solely intended to achieve what Ricœur refers to as “individuation by means of the horrible, to which we are particularly attentive, would remain blind feeling, however elevated or profound it might be, without the near-intuitiveness of fiction. Fiction gives eyes to the horrified narrator. Eyes to see and to weep” (Ricœur 1985, p. 274).

The function of Khadra’s noir novels is related to both burial rituals as defined by Michel de Certeau (1993, p. 118) and to a psychoanalytical working through (perlaboration). On the one hand, writing exorcises death and the horrible by bringing it into discourse. On the other, it supports the floating (or passive) psychic process that takes place between sessions, (in this case, the novels), and facilitates validation and consolidation of the psychic changes that lead to healing.

Something rotten…       

From its very beginnings – as Dashiell Hammett’s works show[9]– the noir novel is a tool for social criticism and for subverting the moral and political order, a means of resisting the domination of the powerful. While Jean-Patrick Manchette does follow this model, he also goes further in the radical deconstruction of the classic detective novel. Instead of the solution of the mystery allowing a return to the initial order disrupted by the crime, a reassuringly circular structure that eliminates any possibility of prolonged social disorder, Manchette uses an open structure that is all the more worrying because it leaves a space for the possibility of renewed conflict.[10] Heir to this double tradition, Yasmina Khadra offers a noir novel of social, political and historical criticism, questioning Algerian society, exploring its cracks and silences, tracing the painful lines of a recent history that is yet to be written. His texts thus fit, in an eminently political way, into a resistant and contestatory perspective that challenges dominant discourse.

Khadra’s noir novels plunge us into the anguish and despair of a universe in which the hero, Brahim Llob, represents the only virtue “in a world without virtue” (Manchette 2012). The dominance of Evil seems absolute and every investigation, in spite of the death (through suicide or assassination) of a few villains, merely confirms the state of dereliction in which the country is wallowing. Llob may well “right a few wrongs, but he’s not about to right the overall wrong of this world” (Manchette 2012). Evil is so pervasive that Llob, the representative par excellence of incorruptibility, a model of the Just lost in a world of turpitude and depravation, allows himself to be contaminated by the widespread evil-doing. On the last page of Morituri, in a dazed state, he kills Ghoul Malek, the story’s arch villain. His act reveals both his inability to maintain the republican order of which he is the representative (he relies instead on a higher power to judge and punish) and the character’s alignment with the hardboiled detective.[11] The hardboiled investigator in both novels and films is characterised by his tendency to go beyond the limits of legality in the course of his work, using verbal and physical violence[12] and is in constant conflict with his superiors. Not content with insulting the Head of the Sûreté (M, p. 58), Llob, who refers to himself as a “hothead” (M, p. 57), beats up Haj Garne, earning himself the following reprimand (with an interesting intertextual reference) from his boss: “When are you going to calm down, Llob? For goodness sake! When will you learn not to bite the neighbour as soon as you’re off the leash? This isn’t the Far West…” (M, p. 56).

In Llob’s case, his hardboiled personality is accompanied by another, even more marginalising element: he is a writer. This means that the hardboiled snoop is also a spoilsport who knows how to read society and guide the reader to the discovery of the truth being covered up by the powerful.

Each of the four novels studied here opens with a disruptive event: the disappearance of Sabrine Malek, daughter of the oligarch Ghoul Malek (M); the assassination of Ben Ouda, author of a pamphlet opposing Algerian scientific socialism; the killing of Arezki Naït-Wali, a brilliant intellectual whose throat has been cut (AC); and the unexpected release by order of the President of a serial killer (PM). But very swiftly, the crime or inexplicable act which Llob is investigating takes a back seat, the initial disorder being just a pretext to the tracking and revealing of evil, whatever form it may take (crime, embezzlement, occult powers and so on) and wherever it may be lurking. What is important in Khadra’s novels is not to answer the “why?” and the “how?” – questions at the heart of the detective novel – but to find out “why?”. In this way, fiction becomes a tool for understanding the real world: “I disturb things, I stir up shit. It could be anyone [who has burgled Llob’s flat]: the Mafia, politicians, fundamentalists, profiteers of the revolution, guardians of the Temple […]. I’m a writer, Lino, everyone’s number 1 enemy” (AC, p. 98).

Gradually, Llob becomes convinced that the strange war bringing upheaval to the country, a mixture of religious fundamentalism, blatant criminality and political intrigues – or, as the commissaire puts it, “this bloody great mess” (M, p. 156) – has been carefully and minutely planned to serve the interests of a particular caste. The conspiracy theme runs through the trilogy and in L’Automne des chimères Khadra has one character, Doctor Lounès Bendi, lay out like a lecture the hidden dimensions of this massive and murderous politico-financial manipulation (AC, pp. 78-80). This is why there are so many straw men, intermediaries and fake figureheads whose function is to cover for the real promoters and beneficiaries of the resulting chaos. The powerful – or those thought to be so – Ghoul Malek, Dahmane Faïd, Athmane Maamar, Abderrahmane Kaak, Haj Thobane, to list only the most representative – are all cut from the same cloth, as Khadra plays with the stereotype that is so frequent in the detective novel. As fat as Buddhas (AC, p. 180), all with the potbellies of those who “suck the blood of the people” (M, p. 44), gripping their Cuban cigars (phallic extensions to their social power), haughty, smug and disdainful of the humble as they display the flashy luxury of their nouveau riche status, they crystallise the hatred felt by Llob (and his creator). Interchangeable from one novel to the next, they are clearly singled out as responsible for the multi-faceted bankruptcy the country is going through. The main accusation levelled at them, beyond economic piracy and the oligarchy’s seizing of power, is their moral corruption and their prostitution of values. In this regard, their names are particularly revealing.

The first evil-doer of the trilogy is Ghoul Malek, a name that can translate to “king (malek) of the ogres (ghoul)”. Highlighting the devouring aspect of the character in this way underlines the weak state of the nation that is a victim of predatory bogeymen and werewolves, terms which recur in all four novels in reference to the powerful. Surnames always echo a character trait: a terrorist named Debbah (the cut-throat) executes his victims with butcher knives (PM, p. 302). Inspector Bliss (Iblis in Arabic means the devil) is a sly and machiavellian character, although in his case there is nevertheless a touch of tenderness as we see in the final pages of L’Automne des chimères. At the end of an official ceremony to mark Llob’s retirement, an emotional Bliss offers the commissaire a badge, a ridiculous yet symbolic decoration:

"You were my favourite subject to inform on,” he adds, his throat husky.                                                                                        He undoes the badge with a trembling hand and pins it on my chest.                                                                                             “My son gave me this on the 5th of July.[13] I’m giving it to you today. I’m not someone you hold close to your heart. I’ll make do with just a square centimetre on your jacket. That’s enough to make me happy, let me assure you” (AC, p. 188).

The case of Bliss, however, remains an exception.

This system of naming is sometimes reinforced by an animalisation of the character: this is the case with Sid Lankabout, whose name, as the glossary at the start of Morituri indicates, means “spider”. The reader’s first glimpse shows him in a wily approach designed to draw into his web a group of handsome young men. A few pages later (M, p. 84) his reptilian and venomous personality is highlighted. It comes as no surprise to discover, at the end of the novel, that Sid Lankabout, a failed and bitter writer is the leader of a group of fanatics, under the name of Abou Kalybse.[14]

This process of anamorphosis also applies to the Muslim fundamentalists whose portraits are systematically based on animal comparisons. After an assassination attempt, Llob examines the photo of a suspect presented as “a billy-goat in an Afghani cassock” (M, p. 17); another jihadist has “his ugly mug covered by a porcupine” (M, p. 51) and a third is described as “a toad” (AC, p. 102). And when they are not animalised, Muslim fundmentalists are diabolical creatures,[15] a comparison which is all the more surprising because these characters claim to be acting in the name of their faith. Such a dichotomy allows Khadra to play with the opposition between the fundamentalists who use their religion for political or corrupt ends, and Llob who not only affirms his Muslim beliefs but acts in accordance with them and with the values associated with those beliefs.

In an interview published in an Algerian newspaper in 2004, Khadra stated:

I’m manichean. I know that’s old-fashioned for a lot of people. I believe in morality, I’m naïve enough to believe in something that doesn’t believe in itself. I believe in evil, in good. It’s not a struggle between good and evil, it’s more of a mingling (Khadra 2004).

The manicheism claimed by Khadra translates into an abundance of terms with religious and moral connotations. The Algeria of the 1990s becomes a kind of limbo, paradoxically “suspended between God’s hell and man’s purgatory” (DB, p. 113), whose future depends on the (uncertain) outcome of the battle between the forces of Evil – the frequency of the words Satan, Beelzebub, Devil, and Apocalypse is remarkable – and the forces of Good.

The city, capital or metropolis, is the place par excellence where Evil flourishes, prospers and spreads like some rhizome. The noir novel is for this reason essentially urban. The few excursions Llob makes outside Algiers, to go to his home village of Ighider, or for reasons related to his investigations, remain secondary. It is inside the city that he moves around, continually on the move between the plush area of Hydra, on the hills above Algiers, to the stinking alleyways of Bab el Oued. The fact that Llob, and his subordinates Lieutenant Lino and former parachutist Ewegh Seddig, are able to move through the various layers of society is another trait of the hardboiled detective, whose investigations are marked by time spent in the most sordid slums as well as the most luxurious homes.

Khadra reuses this function of the detective novel to highlight the social division that exists in Algeria. Up on the heights above Algiers or in the well-off suburbs, who cares about a war that seems to be taking place in a different universe?

Hydra, these days, is like some forbidden city. No fundamentalist’s beard has ever brushed by its mimosas, the smell of gunpowder has never soured its perfumed happiness. Moguls originally from the back of beyond live off their bank balances there, round-bellied and with a sharp eye out for the next acquisition (M, p. 21).

There is also, repeated like a leit-motiv, the theme of spaces off-limits to the vulgum pecus, the common herd, an Olympus where the gods live together, cut off from everyday Algerian reality. And the geographic representation of Algiers in Khadra’s work gives weight to the novelist’s aims: up on the heights, the nomenklatura; in the lower areas, the people prey to daily terror and car bomb attacks.

Quite obviously, the daily lives of the elite are not at all affected by the trials endured by the common people. As an example, take the dinner hosted by the extremely wealthy Madame Rhym. Just as dinner is about to be served, the sound of an explosion in the city centre briefly disturbs the chatter of the guests - yet another bomb exploding. But class self-interest very quickly takes over again: “We’re not going to let a bunch of dirty riff-raff mess up our lives. […] don’t worry about those bastards. Let’s just stuff ourselves till we burst” (AC, pp. 72, 76).

Llob’s toing and froing between chic residential and low-cost housing areas are cleverly introduced into the narrative following the needs of the investigation. In reality, they contribute to Llob’s political commentary on the situation in Algeria and on the real question at the heart of the four novels: who is responsible for the dreadful tragedy in Algeria between 1990 and 1999? Llob, like his creator, has his own ideas about this question: “my honoured father used to say there is no worse tyrant than a donkey seller who has become a sultan” (M, p. 27). In other words, it is the politico-military oligarchy that is to blame, having seized independence in its own interests and done all it could to keep the population in such a stupefied state that it need fear no challenge to the established order: “back then [just after independence] – like today, actually, and most likely tomorrow as well – the ‘elite’ of the harem made certain to keep the IQ of the Algerians at the same level as their leaders, that is, around their crotches” (PM, p. 29). This analysis makes it easier to understand why “the pimps’ Algeria” (PM, p. 29) directed such hatred at the book, at intellectuals and more generally, at all those who do not conform, in word and deed, to the official doxa. To create a high-level political figure who, paraphrasing Goebbels, declares war on culture and intelligence – “as soon as someone pulls out a book, we must pull out a revolver” (AC, p. 81) – is to position the country within a continuing process of decadence. The death of an artist, a creator, a thinker, becomes an ordinary, anecdotal event, while a fall in the stock exchange is cataclysmic. Referring to the death of Tahar Djaout (AC, p. 147) a writer and journalist who was one of the first intellectuals to be assasinated, becomes all the more meaningful in this light: there is definitely – perhaps inescapably – something rotten in the kingdom of Llob.

Between nostalgia and hope

The misanthropic attitude that Llob develops toward his society in his disgust at the “ambient devilry” (AC, p. 64) can be explained in the first instance by his visceral fear of being caught up in the whirlwind of violence and hatred that dominates his country. Faced with terrorism and fanaticism, it is highly probable that a man might lose his soul, in other words that he might turn to the same weapons as his adversary. Llob has a recurring dream, in which the hero is pursued by a fundamentalist, immediately identifiable from his beard, who threatens him with an axe. This dream reveals the moral dimension of the conflict: is it possible to fight the enemies of democracy without in turn dirtying your own hands and your conscience? It is a difficult question, and on a number of occasions Llob uses violence against despicable characters, a violence that allows him to vent his resentment and rancour on the spot. This is particularly true when he is faced with the greatest of possible scandals, the massacre of the innocent. A car bomb is set off in the heart of Algiers. Just another one, yes, but Llob is haunted by the vision of a young boy’s broken body: “The sight of bodies torn to shreds, of the boy blown apart in the gutter, was unhinging me. I’ve seen a heap of bodies during my shitty career. Over time you get used to it. But a dead kid, that’s not natural. I’ll never get over it completely” (M, p. 49). We understand his detesting the rich and powerful, whom he holds responsible for the Algerian drama, we understand his urge to have nothing more to do with the uncultured, corrupt, pleasure-seeking nouveaux riches.

But on each occasion, Llob soothes the resentment that floods through him at such times because the dirty war kills the body and destroys the soul: “I want to pull out my gun and shoot down the first bearded man I meet. I don’t do it, because it isn’t done. I’m not a killer. I’m not going to play by their rules. We have to stay ourselves, ordinary people, but people with a heart” (M, pp. 123-4). Like a refrain, this preoccupation with remaining human in the midst of dehumanisation stays with Llob throughout the four novels.

The Khadrian hero draws the moral strength that allows him to act from his faith in a real country that he contrasts with the one that has been perverted by the corrupt mayors, “vengeful eunuchs” and “pirates” of his homeland (M, p. 29):

Along the road that shimmered in the sun, I saw fellahs breaking their backs in their fields, truck drivers steering with their forearms, women waiting for forgetful buses, children trotting schoolward, the unemployed meditating on café terraces, old men decaying at the foot of walls. In their faces, in spite of the burdens of uncertainty and the darkness of our national drama, I noticed a kind of admirable serenity – the faith of an easy-going people, generous to the point of giving away their last shirt, so humble that they inspire contempt in those who have understood nothing of the prophecies (DB, p. 101).

The commissaire’s affection for the Algerian people is also, if briefly, evident in the first name Khadra gives to Llob’s little neighbour: Fouroulou. This is the name of the protagonist of an autobiographical novel, Le Fils du pauvre [The Poor Man’s Son] (1950), written by Mouloud Feraoun, an Algerian novelist assassinated in 1962 by the O.A.S.[16] Through his books,[17] Feraoun always fought for the downtrodden dignity of an oppressed people. Fifty years later, is this not a form of homage from Khadra to a predecessor whose works merit a different label than the reductive one of populist literature?

Llob is an idealist who has stayed faithful to the convictions that made him, not a “combattant of the 25th hour”[18] but a moujahid motivated by strong convictions. This is why every 1 November Llob makes a point of joining the village celebration of the outbreak of the war for independence.[19] This annual pilgrimage alongside his companions in arms is not just an homage to the absent, but also evidence of loyalty: Brahim Llob insists on following the straight path when the whole country has apparently chosen the twisted ways of denial and voluntary subservience. Llob is aware that he is a pawn that someone powerful could decide at any moment to sacrifice in the vast, deceitful game of chess being played at national level. But faced with the “all-powerful hydra[s]” (DB, p. 168) he falls in beside the courageous who do not abandon ship and the Just who fight to save even one Man.

The Just, almost in the Talmudic sense of the term – Chasid Umot Ha-’Olam, “the generous of the world’s nations” – light up the novels with their profound humanity. With them (Da Achour, Lalla Taos, Arezki Naït-Wali), Llob works through a moral cleansing that washes away the Algiers stains. It is remarkable that the sites inhabited by these characters are so many havens of peace and serenity where Llob, presenting himself as a true believer (unlike all the hypocrites who fill the mosques), seeks out a dimension that is both spiritual and humanist.

The village near Algiers where Da Achour[20] lives is called “limbo” by Llob (M 60). Is that not where the innocent and the just wait for redemption? As happens with the Balzacian tradition that aligns characters with the settings they live in, the description of Da Achour’s home, a modest cabin on the edge of a cliff, looking out over the sea, announces a man who has set himself apart from the world. With something of both the anchorite and the Nietzschean philosopher, Da Achour has lived a soldier’s life, taking him from Normandy to Dien Bien Phu, from Guernica to the Djurdura mountains, and now leads a life some would consider vegetative, but which places him beyond good and evil. He serves as a moral compass for Llob, who often loses his sense of direction. The old man’s aphorisms are provisions for the journey that allow Llob to remain steadfast through torment: “He would say: ‘Race is not about White, Black, Red or Yellow people. […] There are only two real races: the Brave and the Dishonourable” (AC, p. 132).

Lalla Taos is another calming face the reader encounters in L’Automne des chimères. The older sister of Da Achour, who personifies at age 86, in the widespread apocalypse of terrorist attacks, “the quiet strength of unchanging Kabylie” (AC, p. 138). And it is no accident that after the murderous raid on the village of Ighider carried out by the fundamentalists, one of the few survivors is old Taos. She bears within her all the values of love for others, of righteousness and generosity that Khadra bestows on the Kabyle characters in his novels, beginning with Llob whose incorruptibility and probity, even a form of purity close to naïvety, comes from his being born, the author seems to imply, in Kabyle territory.

Ighider is a place of multiple resistance to barbarity. The villagers initially arm themselves to fight Evil by means of citizen self-defence militia who patrol the region: they also fight by opposing the fundamentalists’ obscurantism with knowledge and education. The mayor of Ighider, justly proud of what has been accomplished, explains to an incredulous Llob that the commune is expanding the school and building a youth club and a stadium. And finally, the ultimate form of resistance to intolerance, art, in all its forms: Arezki Naït-Wali’s paintings or Aït Méziane’s comedies[21] are so many barricades raised against religious fanatics.

Ighider, like Da Achour’s house or Sid Ali’s cheap restaurant, are spaces inhabited by a strong humanity. They represent elements of stability in an unstable world, truth in a universe of lies, serenity in a tormented society. They also set up the link with Algeria as it was before. An Algeria where everything still seemed possible, where the utopia of building a free and democratic country had not yet morphed into dystopia.

Daily confrontation with a war that does not speak its name leads Llob to live in a constant state of nostalgia. This is also the origin of the mythical country constructed by the novels, in antithesis to the real world. “There was once”, “in those days”, “back then”, “there was a time” and the like are expressions that speak to the deep divisions caused by the war. A point of no return has been reached, and whatever the outcome of the drama might be, something has been permanently broken: “sordid hope”, to use Anouilh’s expression.[22] Even speaking out is meaningless: words are empty or their meanings twisted. One of the protagonists of L’Automne des chimères by the name of Cheikh Alem[23] turns out to be a fanatical fundamentalist; and a new residential area in Algiers called Hay el Moustaqbal, “the neighbourhood of the future”, is described as “a terrible cluster of rotting shacks, piled together any old how on a piece of waste land overflowing with pestilential drains and abject poverty” (DB, p. 145).

Llob’s Algeria is living through a period of madness dominated by self-hatred and destructive fury, and the commissaire prefers to turn to the past. But beyond the poetry of some of these evocations, we should note the emphasis on the double harmony between the people, themselves and their land. The melancholy that fills Llob every time he thinks about Algeria in former times is ambivalent, marked by a deep despair in some chapters and touched with faint hope in others. However, the overall impression remains negative, especially when Llob indicates in L’Automne des chimères, the novel at the end of which he is killed, that he is working on a manuscript entitled Magog. In Muslim eschatology (as well as in Christianity and Judaism), Gog and Magog are associated with times of great upheaval and conflict. Although the Qur’an does not make much mention of them (Surah 18 and 21) there are numerous references in the Hadith (collected teachings of the prophet Muhammad). From a Khadrian point of view, we might see Gog and Magog as those dark forces present in us all and visibly triumphant in the Algerian tragedy.


The multiplication of detective fiction and other noir novels within the francophone world is evidence of the search not just for a tool suited to the description of the realities of each society, but also for a way to reach the widest possible audience. Something that blanc literature[24] is unable to do, for a number of reasons. Kateb Yacine (1929-1989), a leading figure in Algerian literature, had already understood this when he gave up writing to found an itinerant theatre group which, significantly, presented its plays not in French, nor in classical Arabic, but in Algerian dialect, the only lingua franca in the country. Kateb’s intuition was that faced with the state project of rewriting history, it was important to develop a counter-discourse accessible to the majority.

Be that as it may, Yasmina Khadra’s novels are clearly an attempt to give voice to an opposing point of view. This is not in response to another narrative, since the Algerian state has right up until today muffled any and all questioning of the events of 1990-1999: Bouteflika’s amnesty sought to bring an end to the nine bloody years of war, while blocking even minor investigations into the origins of and responsibility for the conflict. For this reason, Khadra’s aim can be seen as a tomb, in the two senses of the word – both grave and monument. This double function creates a space for grieving (something Algerians cannot fully do at present), with a view to both the past and the future, to the extent that “to mark the past is to make a place for the dead but also to redistribute the space of possibility, to determine negatively what must be done, and thus to use the narrative that buries the dead as a way to make a place for the living” (Certeau, p. 118).

Here we see finally that a class of novel long considered genre fiction, in other words without aesthetic value (Angenot) can, in the dialectics of the fictionalisation of reality versus the historicisation of fiction, develop into a questioning that escapes the ideological leaden blanket of dominant discourse.  



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CERTEAU, M. de (1993) L’Écriture de l’histoire. Paris: Gallimard NRF, coll. “Histoire des idées”.

DUBOIS, J. (1992) Le Roman policier ou la modernité. Paris: Nathan.

GASTEL, A. (1998) “Une Agatha Christie à l’algérienne? ”, Algérie Littérature Action, 22-23, June-September, p. 190.

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[1] See Mellah 2004.

[2] Some historians estimate the number of lives lost in the war at over 60,000, others give the figure of 150,000 victims (not to mention the thousands who disappeared, around a million displaced people and tens of thousands of exiles).

[3] The pseudonym of Mohamed Moulessehoul, a former high-ranking officer in the Algerian army. See Le Monde (1999).

[4] These will be referred to hereafter as M, DB, AC and PM respectively. The books have been translated into English as shown in the bibliography. As is also the case for critical works cited, page references are to the French editions, here translated especially for this article.

[5] “Je suis un écrivain qui s’acquitte pleinement de son devoir de mémoire” [I’m a writer who fulfills his duty of remembrance] (Gastel 1998, p. 190.)

[6] Charles Bonn criticises this type of literature not just for its poor style but also for its exaggerated nationalist fervour (Bonn et al. 1997, p. 196).

[7] See Khadra 2009. Llob believes strongly in his function as a guardian of republican order (AC, p. 44).

[8] The Algerian war began on 1 November 1954 (Toussaint, or All Saints Day).

[9] Red Harvest in particular.

[10] La Position du tireur couché [The Prone Gunman] is a prime example of this.

[11] A term borrowed from World War I American military slang, used of sergeants responsible for training new recruits and transforming them in a few short months or even weeks into fighting men. (See Kubrick’s Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket).

[12] Llob’s execution of Ghoul Malek is reminiscent of Harry Callaghan’s rough justice, in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry series. 

[13] The anniversary of Algerian independence.

[14] Here Khadra is playing with Arabic and French meanings: “Abou”, meaning “father of” … the Apocalypse. In the second-last chapter of Double blanc where the action ends, since the last chapter is an explanation of the facts by Llob, in classic detective fiction tradition, the final word is “Apocalypse”. In addition, L’Automne des chimères uses as an epigraph an extract of the Apocalypse of Saint John.

[15] DB, pp. 59, 73, 76, 109.

[16] Organisation de l’Armée Secrète: Organisation of the Secret Army, a far-right paramilitary organisation opposed to Algeria’s independence from France.

[17] La Terre et le sang [Land and Blood], Les Chemins qui montent [The Upward Paths], Les Poèmes de Si Mohand [The Poems of Si Mohand].

[18] This term refers to “false moujahidine”, men who claimed to have fought in the War of Independence in order to claim pensions and benefits they were not entitled to.

[19] PM, chapter 6.

[20] Among the Berbers of the Moroccan Souss (and possibly also among the Kabyles) putting the title “Da” in front of a man’s name is a mark of respect.

[21]  Fundamentalists have always considered laughter to be suspect because inspired by the devil, as Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose so brilliantly shows.

[22] “Chorus: Tragedy is restful, because you know that hope, sordid hope, is gone; that you are caught, finally caught like a rat in a trap” (Antigone).

[23] In Arabic, alem or alim means educated or learned.

[24] Blanc meaning white, by opposition to noir or black fiction.


TRANSLATION © Jean Anderson 2015


Mohamed Aït-Aarab teaches at the University of La Réunion, and specialises in Indian Ocean and African literatures. His recent publications include the book Mongo Beti, écrivain engagé (Karthala, 2014) and (co-edited with Eileen Williams-Wanquet) Repenser les mythes fondateurs et l'écriture de l'histoire dans l'espace Océan Indien (Océan éditions, 2011). He is the author of numerous articles and book chapters on African writers such as Mongo Beti (Cameroon), Abdourahman Waberi (Djibouti), on the representation of Arabs in French literature and on the relationship between history and literature.


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The Australian Journal of Crime Fiction
Vol 1 No 1 Special Issue 2015
'Detecting and (Re)Solving Conflicts in French Crime Fiction' Special Issue Editors: Jean Anderson, Angela Kimyongür, and Alistair Rolls