[The narrator is fixing up a meeting with a contact]
We met at Laghouat…at his ‘hotel’. It was actually a lodging house, almost a brothel, patronized by the dancing girls of the Ouled Nail when rooms elsewhere were full. The Ouled Nail women came from the south to towns like Bou Saada and Laghouat. They came to earn their dowries by dancing in public and engaging in prostitution. Then they went back to their tribes again, their dowries carried as jewellery and pierced coins about their bodies.
[I went] to a neighbouring house of ill fame where Shirina was performing. She stood and swayed in a long flounced dress. With every movement the coined turban and belt jingled. Then two women seated in the corner struck up on their tambourines and Shirina began the Dance of the Daggers. She sidled round the room, turning all the time to face the audience seated against the walls. There were a couple of Kabyles who dribbled tobacco on to the floor and half a dozen legionnaires, one of whom I recognized as McKellar from my own company.
With every step she took she slapped the ground with her bare feet and thrust her hips out. Her arms snaked this way and that, before returning to her breasts to thrust them out at her audience, but the fiercely spiked bracelets warned the men to attempt nothing. Her eyes, brilliant in the midst of the dark kohl, invited the men to delight, but the haughty set of her barbarous face refused them. In short it was the usual tatty bogus oriental stuff the Ouled Nail offered to sex-starved soldiers and tired commercial travellers.
commentary: One of the two best books I have read this year is Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin. (The other is Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.) Most people hadn’t heard of the book or author, let alone read it, but one commenter on the blogpost added to my knowledge of the Wonders book, and when I asked him/her which to read next, recommended this one saying ‘The Mysteries of Algiers is a novel set in the last days of French Algeria with another unreliable - and very unpleasant - narrator.’
It’s not a book I would have dreamt of reading if I hadn’t loved Wonders so much, but I am glad I read it. ‘Very unpleasant’ is not really adequate, and the book is enormously, outrageously, violent and gruesome. This is something I usually reject, and am often very rude about authors who write this way, but in this particular case Irwin gets a pass. I couldn’t stop reading, I very much wanted to know what was going to happen (even though I could guess that it was going to be horrible…) and there was an element to it that I thought made it bearable. I thought there was no prurience: so often authors are claiming that they and their characters are horrified by the violence, oh how shocking, so let’s describe it in more detail. (The writer I most disliked for this was Stieg Larsson of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy). Irwin presents the violence so coldly and plainly that it was just about readable.
The book is set in the dying days of French rule in Algeria (ie 1959/60), and the main character is Philippe, a French soldier, who ends up journeying all around the country, falling into and out of trouble. I don’t really want to say more than that: reviews I have read since finishing it give what I would consider serious spoilers, but I very much enjoyed having not the faintest idea what was coming next – the book is full of shocks and surprises. One review said Philippe was ‘an interesting monster on an unheroic quest’, and that’s pretty good.
It is much the best book about the mind of a killer that I have ever read – Camus (with the Algerian connection – this is made overt in the book, in the opening lines) and Dostoyevsky are points of comparison. But it also made me think of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (book and film) about which I felt similarly – I loved both, and understood but didn’t share others’ horror and hatred of them.
Philippe IS horrifying, but enthralling and, in the most unlikely way, very very funny and almost endearing. I highlighted endless quotes from the book:
It is one of the problems of working in intelligence that one’s work gives one little to talk about at dinner parties.
Al-Hadi proudly showed me how he kept his explosives hidden behind a stretch of tiling that ran round the wall. ‘What do you think, Sidi?’ he asked anxiously. All that was in my head was the question, what had possessed him to put a floral frieze of bathroom tiling in the living room? But I kept that to myself. ‘Very good, al-Hadi,’ I said.
When I say that the wife is nice, and for that matter Eugene too, this does not mean that I like them. I do not like nice people.
I have never thought it fascist to collect stamps – even German stamps.
The book is full of political arguments, Marxism vs capitalism, which are surprisingly engrossing.
[At a party] The ambience is something between a high school prom and a brothel. Here is a scene from the dream life of capitalism.
There is nothing personal in my detestation of the old. The mutual hatred of young and old is half of politics. Simply, old people are an obstacle to revolutionary change, a dead weight on the future. I am not a fool. Of course I shall be old myself one day. I hope that I shall have the courage to hate myself then. As long as we have not learned to hate old age, poverty and sickness, the world will never change.Philippe has Dien Bien Phu in his past – a piece of French/Vietnamese history which is probably little-known in the UK these days: I know it from books and have been fascinated by its place in the French consciousness for a long time, which probably helped me with this book.
I also loved that they went to the opera, although the scene was cut sadly short: they go to see Wagner and Philippe’s companion has never been before:
He knows the plot of Carmen, but, as far as opera goes, that is it. I have a lot of problems explaining the plot of Rheingold to him.The story of the visit is as good as (and this is high praise) the opera scenes in Terry Pratchett (this one by TP is plainly based on Wagner too).
I was describing these two Robert Irwin books to someone, and she said after a long pause ‘these books are obviously a hard sell’, and I do see that – I just wish I could persuade people to read them, though I would feel guilty if they had nightmares after some of the scenes in this one. (Myself, I haven’t really got over the Talking Head in the first one). I think Wonders Will Never Cease is definitely the best one to start with, and then try this one at your own risk. But the rewards are rare and strange and miraculous.
Ouled Nail have popped up on the blog before, in a book by Elizabeth Daly: the phrase was a metaphor for over-decorated women.
The top pictures are photos of real Ouled Nail from 1896 and 1910, found in books in the British Library.
The woman in the lower picture is faking it: she is the early 20th century modern dance diva Ruth St Denis, a great blog favourite. She is in character as an Ouled Nail in the ballet Vision of Aissoua.
One of the BL books says of the Ouled Nail:
They are very dark in complexion, the eyebrows being connected and several small signs being made on their faces by tattooing; they are much darkened under the eyes, and their colour is heightened by the application of grease-paint. They wear their black hair plaited and brought over the ears and generally bejewelled. Often round their heads they wear a very gay little shawl…Their bright-coloured dresses, of the simplest cut, are bunched out round the waist, and are shortened to display their silver anklets.