A few months ago, I was deep in conversation with Hichem Lamraoui, one of the principal buyers for the Librairie du Tiers Monde in downtown Algiers, when an elegantly dressed young woman rushed into the store and asked the cashier if she could see the books from Éditions Barzakh. She wasn’t talking about a particular author or series—she wanted to see the entire run of Barzakh’s titles. It was as if someone at McNally Jackson in Manhattan or Moe’s in Berkeley had asked whether there was a section devoted to New Directions. But in this bookstore, the best in Algiers, the Barzakhs sit together on a bookshelf directly across from the entrance. They are small, narrow, and taller than average, so they fit easily in the hand. Their paper is thick, ivory rather than white; their covers are matte, not shiny; and they occupy several feet of sales space at Tiers Monde, some 50 titles out of the nearly 250 that Barzakh has published since its founding in 2000.
The young woman took from the shelf a copy of Samir Toumi’s L’Effacement, the sensation of the 2016 Algiers International Book Fair. One morning, the novel’s nameless narrator looks in the mirror and is terrified to discover that he can no longer see his reflection. He consults a psychiatrist, Doctor B., who has some hunches about what might be ailing him. Forty-four years old, the narrator is the passive son of the dearly departed Commandant Hacène, one of the great heroes of the Algerian War of Liberation, and he is incapable of feeling or thinking for himself. He is horrified by all human contact, all warmth. Escaping from Algiers to the coastal city of Oran—a trip endorsed by Doctor B.—provides sensual distraction but doesn’t solve his problems, and by the end of the novel the narrator has descended into paranoid madness.
Toumi’s antihero is a civil servant in the gas and oil ministry who has obtained his position through nepotism. He enables the country to squander its natural resources. Doctor B., the novel’s one source of sanity and comic relief, is a specialist in the “syndrome of effacement,” a newly discovered generational malady. Doctor B. traces the syndrome to PTSD among the freedom fighters of the 1960s, which they unconsciously passed on to their children. The story could easily have been didactic, but Toumi, with a keen sense of place and class that is filtered through the narrator’s sexual misery (imagine a Portnoy who can’t desire), brings an ill-formed man into sharp focus and sweeps the reader through a horrifying tale.
As soon as it was announced, L’Effacement was the talk of the town. Toumi was going to explore the blasphemous idea that the national narrative of revolutionary glory had become exhausted through overuse, and even admit that the founding fathers’ hold on national privilege had begun to seem a little ridiculous. The heroes of the Algerian War of Liberation are known as the moudjahidine, and since the nation’s founding in 1962, they have been served by a much-glorified Veterans Administration that has overseen a set of rewards and privileges familiar to every Algerian. The moudjahidine were given the best apartments of the departed French colonials, and their standing in Algerian society has been continually reinforced through commemoration, law (one needs a moudjahid license to operate a taxi, sell liquor, or import a car), and decades of intermarriage and self-reinforcing elitism.