Like so many days in the world of the Algerian policeman Superintendent Llob, Autumn Of The Phantoms begins with a funeral. This one is for the brother of a childhood friend who was killed by fundamentalists who have begun terrorizing rural communities.
In this case, the community is the village where Llob and his friend, Algeria's greatest painter, were born. Which is of course why his brother was killed, for there was no other reason to kill a simple shepherd except that he was the brother of a despised intellectual.
Like the "devout" everywhere, the fundamentalists in Algeria behave as if they are jealous of anyone who can appreciate the beauty of creativity, and are afraid of anyone who is willing to have an original thought. Blind obedience doesn't allow for originality and so must be stamped out to ensure that there isn't anybody to pervert the minds of the weak and easily swayed.
But it's not just the terrorists one has to worry about in Algeria, there are always those who are able to take advantage of the unrest and create little empires for themselves. They aren't too thrilled that some nosy police superintendent has caught on to the way they use fundamentalists to cover their own attempts to subvert the lives of the people. That he had the nerve to publish a book making those accusations public is just too much for their delicate sensibilities.
So when Llob returns from the funeral, it's to discover that he has been dismissed from the police force for daring to write that the emperor's clothes are being sewn from the funeral shrouds of the people. In spite of his success in rounding up a good number of the carrion feeders who do business in Algeria in Double Blank (the preceding book), there are apparently enough of them left able to pull the right strings to make a functionary in the Interior Ministry fire Llob.
With his wife and children already sequestered safely with her family, at least with what minimal safety there is to be had in Algeria, Llob finds himself alone in Algiers. Dragged to a party in a wealthy enclave, he listens as car bombs and fire fights rock the surrounding city and business men make the excuse of "it's not just Algeria, but all countries like us who have this problem".
From the mouths of people who are stuffing themselves with delicacies that might cost enough to feed a family of four for a week come platitudes of belt-tightening and suffering for the betterment of the country. Complainers, they say shooting dirty glances in Llob's direction, are the ones who will conspire to see us fail (meaning the stalwart Captains of Industry) and then where would poor Algeria be?
When the reply is "much better off" and comes complete with an explanation as to why that is, even Llob is surprised it doesn't come out of his mouth. Especially so when the answerer accuses the erstwhile Captains of deliberately inciting the fundamentalists so that they can ride to the rescue, much the same thing that Llob has been discovering in recent months and had published in his book. It's almost too much of a coincidence for Llob that he is there to hear that with some of the people who were surely behind his firing.
What's even more troubling is that when he returns home he finds that four armed men had ransacked his apartment. They've taken all the time in the world as if knowing he was out for the evening. In rapid succession events begin to overtake him; a car bomb explodes outside the café he and his former colleagues are drinking in while they are exhorting him to leave town, and shortly after another childhood friend dies.
Once again he makes the return journey to his home village for a funeral. Memories of days when all that mattered was spying on a girl, or getting into trouble and having fun ambush him but they aren't the worst things laying in ambush for him. Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the fundamentalists are trying to control the rural areas of Algeria.
When they have no local popular support they resort to terror tactics and try to strangle the life out of the town. Already other towns have had school buses blown up killing dozens of children, shepherds have been forced to either abandon their flocks or move them closer into town where the grazing is quickly exhausted, and the farmers can no longer safely work their fields.
But the people haven't survived French colonial rule only to be re-subjugated by their own countrymen. They have formed their own militia and have started to patrol the area. As one of his older friends tells him their goal is to make life as normal as possible for the children. But even the best-prepared people can't prevent a car bomb from devastating a street, and bullets from being shot. All you can do is fight back. But how long can you keep fighting when the battle doesn't seem to have an end and the faces of the enemy keep changing from year to year?
After 35 years of police work, Llob is still fighting what feels like a delaying action. So even though the urgent summons he receives to return to Algiers is to welcome him back into the fold with open arms, he decides he's had enough. He wants to spend time with his children – give them something approaching a life of normalcy before it's too late. He wants to find his wife again, the woman whose eyes from behind their veil smiled their way into his heart.
In Autumn Of The Phantoms Yasmina Khadra again delivers not only a intelligent and startling story, but insight into a profoundly foreign world. In North America we have any conception of what it's like to wake up in the morning and wonder if this is the day your car blows up when you turn the key over. Will your children come home from school or will you be forced to try and piece together an identification from their remains?
Reading these books make our Homeland Security and colour codes sound like the games of children playing at fighting terrorists. There is no such thing as a War on Terror in the streets of Algiers and the countryside of Algeria. You merely try to keep things as normal as possible and survive until the next day.
The three books featuring Superintendent Llob should be required reading for anybody wishing to understand the reality of living with terrorism. Morituri, Double Blank, and Autumn Of The Phantoms aren't going to let you say "I know how you feel" to an Algerian or someone else who lives like that. But it will make you a hell of a lot more grateful for what you do have.