CHICAGO: There is a small place in Algiers, on Rue Hamani, with a sign in the window that says: “One who reads is worth two who don’t.” It is Les Vraies Richesses, where Kaouther Adimi’s brilliant English debut “Our Riches” takes place.
It is where she weaves between past and present, exploring the lives of French-Algerian Edmond Charlot — famous for discovering Albert Camus, and owner of the publishing house and bookstore — and the people of Algeria, from colonization through independence to the present.
We meet Adimi’s first character Abdallah at 2b Rue Hamani. Les Vraies Richesses is closing. Since the 1990s, the famous bookstore and lending library has been a branch of the National Library of Algiers, which no one visits.
Inside the tiny space are volumes upon volumes of books that have not been touched in years, and photographs of Charlot, Camus, Jean Senac and more that no one looks at. Abdallah, who has been overseeing the library, is heartbroken. He fought to keep the place open, but no one seems to care.
Adimi then moves her story to 1930s Algeria, which marks 100 years of French rule. Algerians are second-class citizens in their own land, whose language, identity and religion are being erased. They are not free to educate their children or own farms. The story churns a distrust and rejection of colonial powers, but bides its time as Adimi shifts to 1935 and 21-year-old Charlot, a vivacious dreamer who eats, sleeps and breathes books.
Conveyed through entries of a diary, Edmond’s vision and his spirit are of a bookstore, publishing house and lending library where minds can meet and all peoples of the Mediterranean can gather. He names his tiny bookstore Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth), and keeps it afloat through war and political turmoil.
As Adimi’s story moves slowly toward Algerian independence, there is an ever-present beauty not only in Chris Andrew’s beautiful translation of her work from French to English, but in the seamless way that she weaves her story through time.
Her main characters all live in the same space but at different points in time. The bookstore connects them, but it means something different to each of them as it explores ideas of belonging and independence. It is a masterful tale that is part fact, in the form of Charlot’s diary, and part fiction, but moves effortlessly into one another to create an incredible story.