Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.


22 thoughts on “Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies”

  1. I was just about to order the Julian Barnes, but now I’m ordering all three. I’d read about Khadra before but never actually read anything of his. Thanks for the tips!

    1. Yes, he has written a number of books on Islam and terrorism in other countries, but it’s particularly interesting to see him handle his native country. No holds barred! I seem to be having disastrous effects on your wallet – sorry…

  2. I hadn’t heard of Dan Fesperman until I read your post. Just looked him up on wiki – he’s a former journalist with experience of assignments in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. I’m sure that must have enabled him to bring a sense of authenticity to the society portrayed in Lie in the Dark. It sounds excellent.

    1. I’ve heard some of his later books descend into more conventional thriller material, but this was extremely atmospheric. It’s one of the favourite books of our editor on the Crime Fiction Lover website!

  3. As a huge fan of Shostakovich I’m fascinated by the sound of the Barnes – the question is whether I can wait until my local library gets a copy! 😁

  4. The Fesperman really looks especially intriguing, Marina Sofia. But all three of them seem to show what happens to individuals when the larger society is completely dysfunctional. I prefer my stories like that – about individuals.

  5. You have me thinking about getting all three of these. Excellent post. If I weren’t in the TBR Dare right now, I’d be making a trip to my library website. Maybe in April….

  6. The book on Shostakovich reminds me of a film I saw recently, Taking Sides, about the German conductor Furtwangler who stayed in Germany during the war. The moral dilemmas of an artist living in an oppressive regime. Should he have left? There’s also the fantastic film Mephisto about an actor who remained in Germany during the war.

  7. All these books are fascinating to me! I’m currently reading Stasi Child, obviously set in DDR and my mind was shouting “Child 44” or “Bernie Gunther” while I was reading your post. It’s weird that I am so interested in reading about investigations set in corrupt/non-democratic/wartime countries when I am very convinced that our peaceful/democratic/streamlined society still has massive hurdles (lack of resources, redtape, inefficient processes) when it comes to solving real life crimes.

    1. Perhaps, by comparison, it makes you more content that you are living in a relatively calm and democratic society… As one crime writer from a South American country said: ‘When truth is far stranger and more corrupt than fiction, what can you write about?’

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