Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith and Alyson Waters
University of Nebraska Press
US, April 01 2013. UK, June 01 2013
Yasmina Khadra literally means green jasmine and is the pen name of the Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul , adopted by him to avoid military censorship – he was at one time an officer in the Algerian army. His latest work, Cousin K, is a novella and, at 96 pages including the Afterword by Robert Polito, a quick read. Yet in that hour or so Khadra takes the reader on an emotional journey so disturbing, with an ending so shocking, that the only option is to go back to the beginning and start it again.
The opening line makes it impossible not to want to find out what this little book is all about:
“For some people nothing turns out right.”
Is the narrator cursed in some way, one of those people whom good fortune always manages to avoid? Certainly there will be many readers who empathise with hating school, being the youngest of three children and the one seemingly left out. The name of the narrator is never given, but that is more than made up for in the dark secrets that are skilfully and dramatically revealed as the end draws near. There are eloquent and sensuous descriptions that almost trick the reader, rather like a car passenger enjoying the scenery but with a nagging worry about where they are being led. Almost at the end, Khadra provides just enough to allow the reader to worry, then delivers the shocking confirmation.
What makes Cousin K stand out from the crowd is not the story itself but the story combined with exquisite writing. Almost every sentence is worth framing, and quite clearly the translators are to be congratulated, too. Consider this introduction to the village where the story is set:
“From my watchtower, suspended between lyricism of memory and the decay that goes with absence, I stare tirelessly at the chaotic village at the bottom of the hill. I try to trap the secrets behind the closed doors, to thwart the plots hatched amidst the twisting lanes; impossible, I can’t do it. I imagine, one by one, the little people nibbling away at their slice of existence, harbouring few illusions, bundling up their dashed hopes, consigning them to the junk room of disappointment; I feel no compassion.”
And no reader can fail to feel the sense of loss and despair when the elder brother to whom the narrator is very close departs after a brief visit to the family home:
“A restless swallow, my brother left at dawn, taking his springtime with him. I can still hear the voices, the laughter, visualize the bright swaths of daylight, the figures like wisps of mist – a whole fairy tale detaching itself from the walls of the manor and abandoning the place as though inhaled by the fast-disappearing car. The grandest of dreams lasts no longer than a sigh; the slightest thing transforms it into a pipe dream. As the rumble of the engine faded, the landscape itself became barren.”
It may be a small book but it is a giant of a literary work. The good thing about the size is that it fits into a pocket or purse with ease, enabling the reader to keep it at hand and dip into a magical world of the flawed and broken heart at every opportunity.
This review was written for The New York Journal of Books.