L’Équation Africaine, by Yasmina Khadra [Mohammed Moulessehoul]

Second paragraph of third chapter:

La première nuit, j’ai fait un rêve : j’étais sur un arbre en train de couper une branche avec une scie. En bas, ma mère jouait avec un medecine-ball orange. Ce n’était qu’une petite fille aux cheveux d’or, mais dans le rêve, c’était ma mère. Elle courait après le ballon en fredonnant une ritournelle. Soudain, elle s’est arrêtée de taper dans le ballon. Il y a eu un silence bizarre. Ma mère avait du sang qui gouttait sur sa tête, sur ses épaules nues, à ses pieds. Elle a levé les yeux sur l’arbre, et elle a blêmi : Kurt, a-t-elle hurlé, qu’est-ce que tu fais ?… J’ai porté mon attention sur ce que j’étais en train de faire, et je me suis aperçu que ce n’était pas la branche que je sciais, mais mon bras… Une douleur fulgurante m’a réveillé : mes chaînes s’étaient enfoncées dans mes poignets à les cisailler. On the first night, I had a dream: I was on a tree cutting a branch with a saw. Below, my mother was playing with an orange medicine ball. She was only a little girl with golden hair, but in the dream she was my mother. She was running after the ball and humming a tune. Suddenly she stopped hitting the ball. There was a strange silence. Blood was gushing from the top of my mother’s head, over her bare shoulders, and down to her feet. She looked up at the tree and turned white. Kurt, she cried, what are you doing? … I shifted my attention to what I was doing, and realised it wasn’t the branch I was sawing off, but my arm … A sudden pain woke me; my chains were digging so hard into my wrists, they’d almost cut them.

The lovely Helen gave me this as a Christmas present in the original French, and I have to admit that I enjoyed the first section a lot but realised my language skills were not up to it, and retreated to an English translation. It’s the story of a German doctor, dismayed by his wife’s suicide, who sets off on a long sail journey with a friend; they are kidnapped by pirates and he ends up, after numerous rather horrible adventures, in a refugee camp in Darfur, where eventually he is rescued; but he finds that he cannot find peace in Frankfurt, and returns to Africa.

There are a couple of whopping big problems with it that require some suspension of disbelief. The pirates who capture the narrator and his friend are surprisingly eloquent for a bunch of militia. (One of them turns out to be a published poet, but the others are not.) The path from the Gulf of Aden to Darfur is politically implausible and geographically weak – there is no mention of the River Nile, which flows firmly across any conceivable route and is rather hard to miss. While Darfur is not exactly lush, it’s not as desertified as portrayed here either. The parts of the book in Frankfurt seem a bit more grounded in local knowledge.

Of course, “Khadra” (in real life Mohammed Moulessehoul, using his wife’s name as a pseudonym) is Algerian, and I suspect that some of the scenes of violence and indeed of refugee camps are more closely drawn from experience and knowledge of his home country rather than places further to the east or south. And certainly I’ve met militia leaders with literary pretensions, and even white Frenchmen who have adopted African-ness as a new identity like the character Bruno. So if you can swallow the implausibilities it’s an interesting narrative.

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