Review by Alice Beazer
In this compact but powerful novel, Kaouther provides a fictional account of the life of Edmond Charlot (1915-2004) who opened a bookshop, publishing house and lending library in a tiny shop on 2 Rue Charras, Algiers. Besides publishing Albert Camus, Charlot published for the Free French Movement (defying the rules of Vichy France).
The novel split over two timescales, firstly between 1930 and 1961, and secondly in 2017. The earlier time period of the stories is compiled of fictional diary entries from Charlot. These concise and entertaining entries offer an insight on the political, cultural and social turbulence of the time, in both France and Algiers.
The second plotline follows Ryad, a young man who’s come from Paris to undertake an internship; one which involves completely gutting and renovating all evidence of books in Les Vraies Riches (translated as ‘Our True Wealth’, the name of Charlot’s bookshop, as well as Jean Giono’s 1937 novel). The neighbours do everything they can to prevent Ryad’s efforts – signalling gentrification – which provides ample source for comedy.
Kaouther’s writing is easy-to-read, whilst being completely immersive and insightful. Chris Andrew’s translation was seamless; the novel never felt like a translation.
Overall, this subtle but powerful novel captivated me from beginning to end. Though miniscule, the bookshop at the centre of the story – Les Vraies Riches – played an integral and definitive role in literary culture. I learnt a lot about harrowing periods of history, particularly in Algeria, and it was fascinating to learn about the inspiring life of a visionary; Edmond Charlot.
A Bookshop in Algiers won the 2020 International Prize for Arabic Fiction – and I’m not surprised. A beautiful and bittersweet novella, perfect to curl up with on a Sunday afternoon.