The Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature--which annually enables the best contemporary novel written in Arabic to be translated into English--introduces U.S. readers to Algerian professor Ahmed Taibaoui's enigmatic The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody. Award-winning former journalist Jonathan Wright smoothly translates Taibaoui's piercing English debut.
Hardly more than 100 pages, the spare novel is divided almost exactly in half. The first, "The Man Who Took His Face Off and Left," centers on a disgruntled young man in Rouiba, Algeria, who is responsible for the care of an elderly man quickly fading into dementia. The old man's son has left for Germany, becoming little more than a voice on the phone, leaving the unnamed narrator seemingly trapped: "I'm a filthy slave that no one knows or cares for, and that suits me fine." And yet he manages to tally up a hefty café bill, charm the household servant and propose marriage to a nurse. And then he disappears off the page. In part two, "Hell Looks Out of the Window," self-opined "brilliant detective" Rafik Nassiri takes on the mysterious case: "He might have existed but in effect he doesn't exist now," he initially insists. Nassiri's declaration isn't wrong, but his efforts continue anyway--yet to what end?
Taibaoui writes with raw urgency--the young man's threats, the old man's demise, the detective's failures--even as his Mr. Nobodys seem to multiply in a society where no one seems to truly know, care about, understand or empathize with anyone else. Part mystery, part confession, part parable, Taibaoui's scathing commentary on nameless, lost souls will undoubtedly find universal resonance. --Terry Hong, BookDragon