‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra

TheAttack

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 257 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

It’s not very often that I get about 10 pages into a novel and decide I absolutely must buy everything else written by this same author. But that is what happened when I started reading Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack. I was so stunned and impressed by the novel’s opening I just knew that I had to explore her back catalogue as quickly as possible.

But Yasmina Khadra is not really a female author. She is, in fact, a man and former officer in the Algerian Army who used a pen name to avoid military censorship — or that’s the explanation given on the “about the author” page in this book. (You can find out more on the Wikipedia entry and on the author’s official [French language] website.)

Khadra has some 20 books to “her” name, but only four have been translated into English. The bestselling 2002 novel The Swallows of Kabul, shortlisted for the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was the first. The Attack, also shortlisted for the 2008 IMPAC Award, was (as far as I can gather) the second. This book was also shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina and the Prix Renaudot, and won the Prix de Libraires. So, my initial impression, that The Attack was by an author of some standing was pretty much on the money.

The Attack is set in Israel and — surprise, surprise — it’s about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Amin has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated, highly professional doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in the most fashionable of circles, making him a shining example of integration.

But when police inform him that the suicide bomber is his much-adored wife, Amin’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart. His house is vandalised, he is shunned by his colleagues and suddenly his adopted homeland wants nothing more to do with him regardless of his previous social and professional standing.

And all the while Amin fails to believe that his wife is responsible for so much death and destruction, even when the police provide evidence to the contrary.

For much of the book we follow Amin’s search for truth. How can it be that the wife he loved so much had so much hate in her? What caused her to turn away from him and their seemingly perfect life together to carry out such an abominable act? What clues did she give him beforehand that he missed? Could he have stopped her?

During his investigation, helped in part by a female colleague whom he trusts, Amin put his own life in danger. At times the reader wants to reach into the story, grab him by the shoulders and tell him to get over it — he will never find anything that will make him comprehend the incomprehensible.

This is a searing heart-felt book, at times graphic and shocking, at other times incredibly moving. It is always believable.

My only quibble is that the first person narrative becomes wearing after awhile, but this may simply be a reflection of the rather wearing, or should I say heavy, subject matter.  This is a book that makes for uncomfortable reading, but despite this I found it difficult to put The Attack down. I raced through it in a matter of days and felt completely wrung out by the end of it.

Khadra definitely knows how to write a thrilling, often thought-provoking, narrative so that it forms one powerhouse of a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the wider implications of faith and cultural identity. Given the times in which we live, The Attack is an important book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.

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16 thoughts on “‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra

  1. Tremendous isn’t it? Partly a study of what brings a person to such a terrible act, partly about how we can live with someone and love them and yet not know them at all. Part of the horror of the novel is not what his wife does, but that he could be married to her and not know that she was walking down a path that led to such an act. It’s a novel with a lot going on in relatively few pages.
    I’ve also read The Swallows of Kabul, just as good a book, Yasmina Khadra is to my mind a writer of great power and real skill. Good to see him getting written up.

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  2. I didn’t know that Yasmina is a man.
    I am glad that he has to courage to write about what’s really going on in his part of the world.

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  3. Arguably Swallows of Khabul makes this look cheery. I note from wikipedia that he has around 20 novels to his name, of which I think about three are in translation. Hopefully more will follow.

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  4. I got this one a while ago and had promised myself that I would read it the minute it arrived. I got distracted and did not. This makes me want to move it to the top of the list. I didn’t realize that Swallows was by the same author, either.

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  5. This is an impressive review–I’m going to have to look for his work now. I tend to stay away from such heavy books about contemporary subject matters, but sometimes it seems very important to read them.

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  6. Quite a few more than three or four of Khadra’s novels have been translated. That would just cover his Inspector Llob mysteries!
    The wikipedia entry is not complete or useful on this topic.

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  7. Max, it is a tremendous read, one that stops you in your tracks and makes you really think about things in a new light. I had not read a book so devastating in such a long while and I still catch myself thinking about almost a month down the line. I have Swallows of Kabul in my reading queue. I just read The Sirens of Baghdad, to be reviewed shortly, and I found it a much more depressing read…
    Isabel, funnily enough he is French Algerian, but that doesn’t stop him setting his books in other war torn places such as Israel, Iraq and Afganistan (spelling??).
    C.B. James, thanks for the comment. Hope you get to read a copy; it’s worth the effort of tracking down.
    Tom C, I’m quite partial to books in translation, too. I think I just got sick of reading way too much American fiction. I have a “books in translation” category (if you haven’t already found it), which may be of interest to you. See http://kimbofo.typepad.com/readingmatters/books_in_translation/
    Lisa, yes, by all means bump it up the list! Be interested in finding out what you think of it once you do get around to reading it.
    Danielle, hello stranger! I seem to be going through a phase of reading books about contemporary issues, namely terrorism and the division between East and West, and this book fits nicely into that category.
    Amateur Reader, thanks for the info. Did not know about his Inspector Llob mysteries. Are they any good? Have checked on Amazon but only two or so are available…

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  8. Wow, what a recommendation! To be honest I’ve previously dismissed Khadra as an example of publisher bandwagon-jumping, a sort of poor man’s Khaled Hosseini (and that’s pretty damn poor). Now I shall have to rethink my prejudices!

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  9. John, I’ve not read Khaled Hosseini, so I can’t make a direct comparison, but I thought The Attack was a highly intelligent read and quite brave, too, because it paints neither the Arabs or the Israelis in a good light.

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  10. We DC Books, Kerala, India would like to translate and publish Yasmina Khadra’s titles in Malayalam. We would be grateful if you could send the person to contact for the translation rights.

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  11. this book is amazing i couldnt put it down…i had raed this book for a novel response and my teacher was amazed! i totally suggest to read it!

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