The Angels Die opens with Turambo, the narrator and hero of our story, preparing for his execution by guillotine. It is written by Yasmina Khadra, who has written more than twenty novels. This is the story of Turambo’s rise and fall, from absolute poverty to fame and fortune to the guillotine. Well, that’s the storyline. It’s really about the destructive power of poverty, oppression and racism.
The Angels Die is organized in three parts, each centered on a different woman with whom he falls in love. The first is his cousin Nora, the second a prostitute named Aida and the last, Irene, the first woman who actually loves him back. Turambo, like many men, seems to think that if he loves a woman, they must love him and will fall gratefully in his arms the moment he tells them of his great love. He is repeatedly surprised.
“Dreams are a poor man’s guardian, and his destruction.
They take us by the hand, walks us through a thousand promises,
then leave us whenever they want.”
Turambo and his family were displaced by a massive flood that destroyed his village. It was probably the Mostaganem flood of 1927 which killed more than two thousand Algerians. His name is not really Turambo, it’s a nickname that comes from the name of his village that has been buried in silt. There is an irony in this name, but to tell you would be a spoiler. Not that it spoils the plot, but that moment of realization is quite poignant and should not be taken away from the reader. He is an Algerian Arab whose country was under French colonial rule. It takes his family most of his childhood to climb out of absolute destitution to respectable poverty.
“I had no way of knowing that when charitable people intervene
to save your skin, they don’t necessarily plan
to leave any of it on your back.”
Turambo has a talent for making good friends, but not much else. He loses the jobs he gets and is often fired for losing his temper. He has a strong left hook which eventually brings him to the attention of a boxing trainer and promoter and sure enough, that is the one sphere in which he can succeed. However, during his struggle to boxing success, he is repeatedly confronted by anti-Arab racism. While it angers him, he never seems to connect it to something larger than himself.
“The sea is a font where all the prayers
that don’t reach the Lord fall as tears.”
Turambo is an angry man, with good reason. The world is unjust and he and his people are oppressed and insulted daily. The racism is flagrant and cruel. As Khadra put it, his “people could still cling to the flotsam, but they weren’t allowed on board the ship.” Still, his anger seems more generalized, more a character flaw than a righteous anger inspired by injustice.
Turambo is illiterate and uneducated, so it’s no surprise that he does not connect his struggle to the larger struggle of his people. Khadra uses the device of an encounter with someone from the Association of Muslim Students to draw attention to the political context, but Turambo has never heard of them.
“I have a feeling that we never die completely until
we have consumed all our memories,
that death is the ultimate forgetting.”
Khadra is a painstaking prose stylist. He writes sentences that beg to be carefully lettered and illuminated on parchment, framed and placed on the wall. Characters offer short soliloquies on the meaning of life that seem crafted more for critical discussion in a classroom than something a living, breathing person would say. There is this disconnect between the narrator’s actual life experience and the words that come from his mouth. We have this unlettered, uneducated boxer who speaks as though he has a graduate degree in literature.
Do you know why we no longer embody anything but our old demons?
It is because the angels have died of our wounds.
So yes, the prose is beautiful, the story is interesting and informative and provides insight into colonial Algeria and the experience of people living under the boot of French oppression. I should loved it, I expected to love it, but I did not.
I did not like Turambo. He seemed incapable of true empathy. He was often flat out thick as a post, as in the deal he made with someone to find him jobs in exchange for half his earnings. And yes, intellectually, I know that Khadra is deliberately making an unlikable protagonist to push us into thinking more clearly about how oppression brutalizes humanity. Still, I feel a visceral dislike of the character, not so much for his anger at the outside world, but for his attitude toward the women he thinks he loves.
Three times he fell in love and three times he expected the women to be grateful and reciprocate. Three times the women asserted their independence and agency and yet, he never really got it. Even when he does come to recognize what Irene was telling him about boxing, he still does not recognize that other people outside himself have motivations, needs and demands that do not center on him.
Khadra has a lot to say about racism, colonialism, women in Islam and how we make our way in the world. I will make a point of reading another of his books, perhaps The Swallows of Kabul, which sounds fascinating, though again with an unlikable protagonist.
The Angels Die will be released on August 15th. It is published by Gallic Books which specializes in bringing the best French contemporary literature into English.
I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.