Anonymous Algerian agony exposed in Ahmed Taibaoui's 'The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody'

Anonymous Algerian agony exposed in Ahmed Taibaoui's 'The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody'
Book Club: Recipient of the Naguib Mahfouz prize for Arab literature, Ahmed Taibaoui's debut novel is a grim introspective of a poverty-stricken Algiers. Set in post-civil war Algeria, Taibaoui's noir offering is an intense, must-read page-turner.
6 min read
22 March, 2023
Ahmed Taibaoui's novel examines how Algiers's destitute underbelly sucks the life out of wellwishers [Hoopoe]

Ahmed Taibaoui makes his English language debut with his latest novel, The Disappearance of Mr.Nobody. This noir fiction is a sombre and profound contemplation of identity, post-colonial societies, social conflicts, and the intricacies of morality and ethics.

At just over a hundred pages, it demands the reader to immerse themselves in the story and tread the path between the lines to grasp the characters' plight fully.

A post-colonial suburb in Algiers, Rouiba, sets the stage for an unnamed narrator and the multitude of people that will become inextricably and bizarrely connected to him. As he himself says, the unnamed man has survived a tumultuous and violent past that has left him “burnt out, just ashes.”

"The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody is not simply a meditation on what defines a person; it interrogates the puzzle of the human psyche and depravity"

Life has compelled him to vacillate between disparate roles, but he is perpetually on the margins of society, playing a cruel game of survival. He arrived in Rouiba looking for escape and, instead, found himself as the cryptic caretaker for an old man abandoned by his own son and suffering from dementia.

As the elderly man’s condition continues to deteriorate, the nameless man labours to keep them both alive while ruminating on his hapless experiences and falls into apocryphal dealings with the locals of this small town.

Taibaoui has crafted a novel in which optimism seems lost, and all the characters are bereft of agreeable attributes. Yet, curiously, the reader will become rapt in the enigma of this dismal individual and his depraved acquaintances.

When the old man eventually passes, his strange caretaker vanishes. Thus, the novel is split into two sections; it first follows the confessions and thoughts of Mr.Nobody, and the second focuses on Detective Rafik’s futile search for him after the old man's demise. The unnamed man comes into contact with Mourad, an unrepentant womanizer, who offers him free housing with the condition that he cares for his invalid father.

Mourad emigrates to Germany, leaving behind his home and shedding his role as a son. Although we later learn that the unnamed man was orphaned early on in life, in this pitiful old man, he finds a notional father.

Despite having some vestige of a residence, he remains indigent. He laments his situation and oscillates between emphatic concern for the dying man and resentment toward him for having to share his waning resources.

As the old man obstinately holds on to life, the narrator becomes familiar with Mubarak, the cafe owner, a licentious Imam, police informers, graver robbers, and a bookshop owner who sells bootleg beer.

After the narrative switches to the investigation into the unnamed man’s identity, the histories and incentives of his peers are disclosed. Interwoven with the unidentified narrator's reflections, we are exposed to the patriarchal, perverted face of society and religion. They attempt to justify their malfeasance and make sense of their trauma and roles in the world as they provide conflicting stories of this strange, unnamed man to obscure their nefarious doings.

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The unnamed narrator is a victim of societal intimidation in a critical period of Algerian history. Orphaned, kidnapped by rebels, and institutionalized, he considers himself an interloper in the world, always a hostage to his circumstances.

Through him, Taibaoui explores how trauma and colonialism impact our psyche, especially those who can not escape the ramifications of their socioeconomic status. Reminiscent of trauma flashbacks, we propelled in and out of his past and present, uncovering that although his early life was catastrophic, he managed to become university educated but to no avail. He remained homeless, devoid of dignity, floating through his existence.

His outlook on life is bleakly filled with a desire to remain reclusive. Those of sound minds regard our experiences as defining and envisioning a promising future. This unnamed man, however, bemoans himself as shapeless and fragmented. He goes through the motions of his squalid life just as we all do. We allow our memories and grief to form a distinctive individual. The discrepancy here is that he has lost the ability to laugh, create meaningful companionship, and see past his anguish. Although his identity papers affirm his existence, his wounds have simultaneously encompassed and obliterated him.

His ability to exist and be spectral leaves an indelible mark on Detective Rafik, who finds himself disoriented in his existential crisis. Initially flummoxed by the anonymity of this peculiar man, he begins to covet his position. The detective starts to wish he, too, could shed himself of his misfortunes and become disembodied.

Through his interviews with the odd residents of Rouiba, he believes that Mr. Nobody’s disappearing act is a kindness to oneself instead of living a life of duplicity and fraud. But as we all know, life is far more complex and painful than simply fading away. Like Taibaoui’s unfortunate characters, we must confront our demons and persist with life.

The Disappearance of Mr. Nobody is not simply a meditation on what defines a person; it interrogates the puzzle of the human psyche and depravity. Few novels concentrate solely on the monstrosity of society without juxtaposing a saviour to redeem humanity. But Taibaoui masterfully manages this.

The women in this story are disturbingly dimmed, constant prey to the salacious. The men occasionally indicate a sliver of sympathy but otherwise wallow in their victimhood. It is quite an unnerving read as we must empathize while admonishing these awful sins of exploitation and avarice.

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Taibaoui makes acerbic references to Algerian society and the aftermath of the violent civil war. Mr.Nobody was kidnapped as a child during the war, permanently disfiguring his mind.

The Bookshop owner was tortured as a political prisoner, and the rest of the characters continue to feel the consequences pulsate through various facets of their lives. Taibaoui is not shy to expose that corruption runs rampant in the country after colonization and war. The degenerates of society are often produced by the same community that denounces them.

This book is not for the faint of heart; it requires focus and willingness to enter a world they would otherwise spurn. But those who choose to embark on this experience will find it uncomfortably illuminating. Detective Rafik declares, “ Each of them had something of him, and this Mr. Nobody could be a part of all those he saw walking past as if he had melted into the multitude.”

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including covering the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matters Movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe.

Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin