Aziz Chouaki's novel "The Star of Algiers"

A Singer in a World Gone Mad

In his novel The Star of Algiers, the Algerian writer Aziz Chouaki tells the story of a talented musician whose career takes off just before the Algerian civil war, of all times. Kersten Knipp read the book

In his novel The Star of Algiers, the Algerian writer Aziz Chouaki tells the story of a talented musician whose career takes off just before the Algerian civil war, of all times. Kersten Knipp read the book

Azizi Chouaki (photo:
France-based Aziz Chouaki's "The Star of Algiers" is not only a wonderful novel about music, but also a touching text about artistic and human failure

​​There must be a sound no one has ever known before. Something new, unheard of, a blend of every possible musical genre. A style that combines Atlantic and Mediterranean music in a way that has never been attempted before.

The sounds of the Caribbean are part of this new style too, bringing everything together, interweaving the melodies of the continents in a bold new way. And underlying it all will be Arab rhythms, the lightning drum and percussion beats, the nervous, energised pressure of the cities of the Maghreb. That's how the Algerian answer to Michael Jackson has to sound.

Magic of sounds

And that's how he starts out, Moussa Massy, the would-be superstar out on the shores of the sea, a wasteland and mountains of refuse before him, behind him the children of a run-down housing estate with an enchanting name: "Mer et Soleil".

Sun and sea – there is plenty of that here, but there is even more of something else: dirt, poverty, desperation; stranded wishes, shattered futures; damaged and eventually mortally wounded confidence. Labyrinthine anxiety lifted only by drugs: hashish, coke and of course zombretta, a zesty mix of syrup and methylated spirits for a guaranteed high.

Yet above it all, at least to start with, floats music, the magic of sounds, the warm breeze of the notes that carries Moussa away, releasing him. Perhaps for ever, but at least for the length of every single song.

Toxic atmosphere

Born in the Kabylie region in 1951, Aziz Chouaki has mastered the art of coupling the sublime and the sordid, the lightness of creativity and the weight of depressing reality. This mastery prevents his novel The Star of Algiers from falling into two different traps: the one of pretentious cultural idealism and the other of the dull topoi of socially critical literature.

​​What marks his book out is the juxtaposition of music and its surroundings – creating an inescapable tension that will bring Moussa Massy to his knees, but which lends the text itself a page-turning fascination.

And yet Chouaki had to do little more than simply describe the situation in Algeria in the early 1990s. The country has been sagging under the dead weight of the FLN's single-party government for thirty years. Nothing works any more, no one hopes any more, most people have settled into the general depression. Or that's the way it seems.

As we find out, though, the country's dissatisfied have been gathering for years in the FIS, the Islamic Salvation Front. The unfortunate elections that were annulled, plunging the country into civil war, are still looming ahead.

Yet there are abundant and disconcerting signs of crisis. Bearded men at every turn: old men and young men, men who still expect something out of life and know they will come to nothing under the FLN.

The esprit de corps is strict, the atmosphere in the city is toxic. Women have to cover their heads, musicians have to turn their backs on the devil's music.

Star of the show

Moussa counters this abhorrent bigotry with music – at least while he can. And things do seem to take a turn for the better for him. He gets more and more gigs at better and better venues.

Algerian police force cover the bodies of the dead in the Algerian national flag after an attack by militant Islamists (photo: AP)
Algeria during the civil war: Not just the general economic depression – the Islamists' insane abhorrence of art plays its part as well

​​In the end he even performs on stage at "Triangle", the city's hottest club where the jeunesse dorée, the wealthy and beautiful hang out. It looks like a bright future awaits him – and Moussa has talent.

No writer could stage that rise to fame better than Chouaki, who used to play in several bands himself and has obviously retained his instinct for musical intensities.

And the reader certainly feels the Eros of the music, the magic of the sounds. Moussa both absorbs and exudes this magic. The reader can all but hear his exaggerated tones, his vocals condensed almost to a scream.

And just like his idol Michael Jackson, Moussa choreographs his appearances around himself, focusing the musical energies, the whole point of the show around the singer. "20,000 dinars in total, 8,000 for yours truly. That's only right: I'm the star. It's no joke, singing for over five hours with just one short break."

A country's wounds

Chouaki has written a fantastic music novel. Above all, however, it is a novel about the tragedy of music, or more precisely: the tragedy of the musician himself. A tragedy not due to art itself nor timeless, a tragedy that can be precisely dated in time and place: Moussa's tragedy is rooted in the fact that his career takes off in Algeria in the early 1990s, of all times and all places.

At that time it is almost doomed to failure. Not just the general economic depression is a hindrance to his musical career – the Islamists' insane abhorrence of art plays its part as well.

They step up the pressure on Moussa, who loves music more than anything else. Yet this love too is doomed – and Chouaki describes with impressive precision and empathy the devastations to which this artistic failure, threaded through with streaks of forlorn hope, drives him.

Yet in the end, the worst defeat is of Moussa's own making. The world is a colourful place, but its diversity no longer comes together in his music, nor in his life. The terrible end he eventually comes to inflicts deep wounds – not only on Moussa, but on the country as a whole.

Kersten Knipp

© 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Aziz Chouaki: The Star of Algiers, translated from French by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman, is published in English by Graywolf Press in the USA and Serpent's Tail in the UK.

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