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The Disappearance of Mr Nobody, an Algerian noir by author Ahmed Taibaoui, is, on the surface, a novel about a man who disappears in Algiers and the detective assigned to find him – a man who gets catapulted into a questioning of his own existential journey.
The novel is split in two parts. The first provides an account of Mr Nobody, who upon finding himself impoverished and destitute moves to a post-colonial suburb of Algiers, Rouiba. There, he ends up caring for a man with dementia whose own son has left him to survive alone. The confessional tone of this first part of the book provides quite a powerful depiction of Mr Nobody. We are immersed into his life. Oscillating between his past and present, we glean the history of a man who has been orphaned, kidnapped, and institutionalised. We glimpse into his grim daily reality and the constant challenges facing him. Yet despite his difficult past and present he appears to accept responsibility for the old man, even if there are times that he is resentful at having to secure resources for both of them, Quite remarkably, in fact, Mr. Nobody, demonstrates empathy towards his charge, and is saddened that the man’s son should desert him in his time of greatest need. He even expresses remorse towards a nurse he took advantage of, which is surprising and has the effect of shining a light on humanity, and bringing much needed comfort to the reader, as in the excerpt below:
“That fat nurse is the only person I’ve wronged in my life and she deserves a long apology because I tricked her in the name of love for the sake of an illusory escape.”
The reader quickly discovers Mr Nobody is not a man who has lived a life, he has survived it. The lack of considerationfor himself and his situation, however, I feel, is central to the deeper story of the novel (explored a little later). This clue is one of many that follows in the full telling of this story.
Upon the death of the old man, Mr Nobody suddenly vanishes, and thus begins the second part of the story, which is structured much like a crime novel. It follows Detective Ratfik, who has been assigned to identify any link between the disappearance of Mr Nobody, and the old man’s death. The subsequent shift of perspective is powerful as the reader, brought alongside Detective Ratfik, now begins to undertake a painstaking enquiry into the life of Mr. Nobody. Through the testimony of the people that Ratfik interviews and the records he can discover, the Detective (and the reader) attempt to reconstruct Mr. Nobody’s life, yet despite Ratfik’s heroic efforts, he fails to figure out who this man was. He is left wondering how someone could exist and prove so impossible to trace, which makes him question his own existence:
“For some reason he had come to see the search for the missing man as a very personal matter, more important to him than anything else. He had lived deprived of things he could be interested in…. and deep down he felt an emptiness that nothing could fill. But that wasn’t the fatal effect. Most people live meaningless lives….”
Ratfik is now immersed in his own existential crisis, as he questions his life choices: the roads he has traveled, the grievances and the losses that he has endured. Meanwhile, readers, are prompted to ponder the same questions as he does, such as what it might mean to exist at all? or what does it mean to know others? Or for others to know another individual? This further clue brings us closer to the heart of the novel.
In this section too, through unidentified narration, the maligned motivations of those who’ve encountered Mr Nobody are now made known. Slowly, we begin to appreciate the extent of the corruption that is rife in this society, its institutions – even within the religion – as police informers, grave robbers and imams all prove to be quite other than as they first appear. A shining example of this is when Mr. Nobody rents a room to an imam who wants to perform an exorcism. It transpires that he is actually having an extramarital affair – the kind of exploitation for selfish reasons that is frequently depicted.
The compressed style itself, which is super effective, functions on different levels. This is possibly in part due to the fact that Taibaoui started out writing short stories, but it also has the effect of adding an intensity, which makes each page sing. Absolute gems, like the one below, are plentiful in this work:
“Disappearing is more generous to one’s self than a phony and deceitful existence with distorted features.”
“He wanted to die without letting go of life,” Taibaoui writes of Rafik. It is an observation that resonates well beyond the page.
The compression, however brilliant, is certainly challenging at times, but as a reader, it also had the effect of pointing to a society in which many questionable things are veiled underneath a thin surface. At a certain point, the veil is lifted, and we glimpse into the inner workings of this kind of society only to realise what we suspected all along.
It is in the clever deployment of Mr. Nobody, however, that Taibaoui’s literary genius comes most strongly to light. Over the course of the novel’s 126 pages, it slowly dawns upon the reader that what happens to Mr. Nobody, is the ultimate fate in a society where corruption reigns and people are treated as if they don’t matter. Mr Nobody is the embodiment of the collateral damage to human beings who lose hope that anything will change. Without hope, without the promise of a future, or the ability to take control of and drive our own destiny, it becomes impossible to exist at all. It is this presentation of Mr. Nobody, which makes this novel so valuable and timely; the exploration of the impact that such legacies have upon us (as in the postcolonial Algerian context tackled here), especially for those who cannot escape.
At the point in the novel that the reader realises what Mr Nobody stands for, the many choices Taibaoui has made in the creation of this novel begins to dazzle; from the oscillation of past and present in Mr Nobody’s account, to the juxtaposition of Detective Ratfik alongside Mr Nobody’s, the unidentified narration or indeed the compressed style. We see how all these elements work together to illuminate and expose a corrupt society and its effect, as well as quite intimately provoking crucial questions about morality and identity. This for me is what makes this novel so innovative, exciting and brilliant.
The Disappearance of Mr Nobody’s fable-like quality, it’s clever deployment of literary devices and raw authenticity makes it a gift to any reader.
Elizabeth is a writer writing for the 21st century reader. Her work explores how the narratives, old scripts and stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and what we deserve, are often as fabricated as any fictional novel. Exploring the relationships we have with self and others in contemporary life, Elizabeth’s work pulls the reader not just into the story unfolding on the surface, but the characters inner world and family dynamics unraveling underneath. Elizabeth is unafraid to explore form to find the best way to tell the story being told that honours the story. She evokes an immersive reading experience, provoking the reader to engage with their own stories. Elizabeth is from Ireland and she has an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD in Sociology from Queen’s University Belfast.