In the Name of God, by Yasmina Khadra. Originally published as "Les agneaux du Seigneur" in 1998. Translated by Linda Black. The Toby Press of London, $12.95 (paperback). (Only available online at www.tobypress.com.)
IT'S ONE OF those experience-the-culture things: However suspicious the sauce or mysterious the meat, if you're the guest, you bite your tongue, can your prejudices and swallow without chewing. It won't kill you; the worst you can come away with is a story; the best, an appreciation for a new flavor.
So it is with In the Name of God.
"Yasmina Khadra" is the pseudonym adopted by an Algerian writer who keeps even gender secret. This work is a novel about religious and political tyranny and human nature's role in it -- allegorically and perhaps literally.
Set in contemporary Algeria, the novel opens on a sun-blanketed, lazy village. While rich land-holdings have been broken up by agrarian reform, traditional social strata and occupations reign. Elders make decisions, sipping coffee and playing dominoes day in and day out; the imam dispenses spiritual advice; the young men visit the whores, smoke hashish and grumble about their prospects. The village has memory, though. The French collaborator in the war for independence is still ostracized, for example; he occupies a rank down there with the thieving dwarf who feeds wingless flies to antlions for pleasure; and those once rich still rankle about lost privilege.
When the Islamic fundamentalist movement ripples out from the cities to the village, it carries with it the opportunity for moral regeneration and for the young to focus energies. It also provides opportunities to avenge old slights and satisfy personal ambitions.
In the Name of God becomes a classic revolutionary tale of perverted ideals and lust for power, property and revenge. The traditional is overthrown. Historical artifact is razed in the name of principle. Education is curtailed and civil rights rescinded. The spurned lover turns his personal rejection into political statement; religion sanctions hate crime. The novel is violent and wrenching. But it's also compelling and thought-provoking.
It offers a fascinating read, if you're willing to swallow whole the murky-brown sauce of Arabic prose style. Despite the exaggerated emotion, adjectival effusion, swarms of characters participating in unmotivated action, and an uncontrolled narrator privy to just bloody everyone's thoughts, you come to care about this village and what it represents. And you long to take revenge on the dwarf.