In a suburb of Algiers, Mr Nobody is caring for an elderly man with dementia. When the man dies, Detective Rafik is appointed to identify Mr Nobody and as he tries to collect answers, begins his own existential quest. This is the Disappearance of Mr Nobody, the English language debut of Algerian writer Ahmed Taibaoui, a professor at the Faculty of Economics, Business and Management Sciences at the University of Bouira in Algeria. In 2021 Taibaoui won the Naguib Mahfouz Prize for Literature for this Algerian noir, published by Hoopoe Fiction.
How did you come up with the idea for this novel?
The Disappearance of Mr Nobody began as a story. From time to time I was writing a short story or two, trying my pen in the limited space where you have to say what you want to say intensively and concisely. I wrote it in two pages and I kept waiting. The idea grew in my head after many weeks of thinking and rethinking, preparing, thinking about the hero, the rest of the characters, the construction of the text, the possible written form that might be more suitable for the idea and for the vision.
As for the writing, it took no more than the normal amount of time. The pen overwhelmed me a lot as I tried to write in a different way.
The novel raises the question of what it really means for a person to exist when he is alive in the records; the testimony of others to this, the impact he leaves on people and things, his awareness of his existence, or his desperate attempts to review what we can really infer about the existence of man, the inevitability of that existence, about failures and the forced withdrawal from life.
It is also about the manifestations of being weak and broken and escaping from being a programmed mutant. But this novel goes on to show the opposite situation, as the hero Mr Nobody decides for reasons that are important to him to be invisible, obscure, transparent in some way, erasing biography and impact. He tries to invent a different fate, or just no fate and sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he fails.
Why did you decide to divide it into two parts and tell the story through two perspectives, the carer looking after the elderly man and the detective Rafik?
In the first part of the text, the master, the disappeared, the nobody, recounts his diary and what he lived before – his biography, as he tells it, the truth of what he lived and his outlook on life. With his disappearance, he becomes a memory of a ghost without a voice.
In the second part of the novel, Mr Nobody retires from everything to find himself caring for an elderly man, and then he must disappear again after the elder's departure, leaving behind the mystery of turning into nobody.
After that, those who knew him or dealt with him during that period appear. Tracing his trail leads to searching within their own lives, and in this part the character of Detective Rafik is central, eventually identifying with Mr Nobody. In the first part Mr Nobody exists as himself, we know who he is. In the last part of Mr Nobody the reader sees him through the eyes of others who knew him, and then discovers that each of those is also the master of nobody and is like him in some way.
How are characters like Kada shaped by their history and involvement in the civil war?
The Civil War, the black decade, as we call it in Algeria, was not just a difficult period that we passed in time and it was over. The suffering and pain were beyond description and its impact will remain with us for a long time.
What we write reflects our near and distant memory individually and collectively, and what was left behind by this harsh period in our lives. In each [of the characters] is something from Mr Nobody, as if he melted into them. And the officer is like a drifter looking for a missing person. And in all this everyone appears as if in an endless spiral, losing the parameters of their existence. Their backgrounds are diverse – the liberation war against France, the bloody civil war, the recent history and social marginalisation, their attempts to rise to escape poverty and the absence of equal opportunities.
Who does Mr Nobody represent to you?
We have an identity dilemma. The Arab man is in a crisis in humanity, which is the first component of his identity before language, gender, race, religion, historical and geographical affiliation. Not only in Algeria, but in all Arab countries, in societies that are historically and culturally varied, and even in developed societies – in which the place of man and his dignity are central – but to a much lesser extent than is the reality here. The spaces of human and moral failure here are vast.
At some point, the search for the missing man becomes personal for Rafik and their fate intertwines. Why does Rafik see himself in Mr Nobody?
Despite the difference between the characteristics of each of the characters of this novel, the reader will find that they are similar. Mr Nobody, detective Rafik and their circle includes not only the narrative experience of space and time, but they are united by aborted dreams, the depletion of hope, the question of whether they really are them or whether what they experienced took something important of their humanity. They ask, by statement or implication, many questions such as: What remains of the humanity of man and how is his existence realised if his dreams are lost and the people with whom he lives turn into deformed beings from within?
The most important thing Detective Rafiq learned from Mr Nobody is that he has to escape or disappear if he wants to remain human.
Which side of Algeria are you trying to portray in this novel?
Through the text, I tried to give a voice to those who live on the margins in Algeria and many Arab countries and to monitor some details of their lives and the entanglements between the bitter reality and their individual dreams and aspirations. I tried to capture the lost details and records of some of those who live disappeared, voluntarily or forcibly, without anyone caring about them, and then die without a grave, even in our collective memory.
What does it mean for you as a writer to publish your first novel in English?
I am looking forward to the impact the novel will have on the reader in English. As for the presence of the Arabic novel in the international literary scene, I think that part of the problem is related to translation because I do not imagine that all Arabic novels are below the level of what is written in other places of the world in other languages where translation is not a fundamental obstacle.
Creativity in our country, far from the linguistic beauty of texts, is limited, as is the ability to engage in experimentation including the departure from the prevailing patterns while preserving the aesthetic and value. There are those who engage in experimentation and try to push their texts into a different form, but unfortunately, there are those who experiment for the sake of experimentation. There are also other factors that limit the presence of the Arabic novel outside Arabic-speaking countries, such as the nature of the topics addressed by the Arab novelist.
How did you feel when you won the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature?
In my acceptance speech I said that from the moment the jury announced the victory of my novel, I felt the weight and importance of winning a prize that bears his name, the name of the timeless Naguib Mahfouz, the first teacher. Before that, whenever I read from his texts I learned from him. It is an Egyptian and Arab stature and value. There is no creativity without imitation, even without prior intent.
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At first, we are all influenced by those whom we read. After that, the writer tries to chart a special path for himself after his experience matures and absorbs what he has read from the texts, then he turns to make what he writes more like him and make it his own. The award is just a first threshold or an initial export for the writer and therefore for his creativity, it allows him a media presence due to the reputation of the award, and an opportunity to shed light on his creative experience as he seeks to develop it.
But it is not the end, as he must prove his worth through his work by developing his experience and what he puts out for the reader, otherwise it is just considered a stroke of luck. Perhaps it will be a challenge, a new motivation to create more mature, deep and enjoyable writing.