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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Our Riches

Kaouther Adimi

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To purchase Our Riches

Title: Our Riches
Author: Kaouther Adimi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 183 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Our Riches - US
A Bookshop in Algiers - UK
Our Riches - Canada
Nos richesses - Canada
Nos richesses - France
Was uns kostbar ist - Deutschland
La libreria della rue Charras - Italia
Nuestras riquezas - España
  • French title: Nos richesses
  • US title: Our Riches
  • UK title: A Bookshop in Algiers
  • Translated by Chris Andrews

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting -- both presentation and content -- but a bit thin

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Droit . 19/9/2017 Maud Cucchi
Le Figaro . 13/9/2017 Sébastien Lapaque
Harper's . 4/2020 Julian Lucas
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/5/2020 Elisabeth Zerofsky

  From the Reviews:
  • "Investie d'un devoir de mémoire, Kaouther Adimi réhabilite l'histoire extraordinaire de ce petit libraire de quartier devenu l'un des pionniers de l'édition algérienne et son ambassadeur à Paris. (...) La démarche romanesque de Kaouther Adimi s'accompagne aussi d'un travail colossal de recherche d'archives et de témoignages." - Maud Cucchi, Le Droit

  • "Adimi includes this sad denouement, but refuses to make Charlot's life a tragedy. Instead, she's told a moving story of his efforts to push so many worthy writers toward posterity's heights. Publishing can be a Sisyphean business. One must imagine the bookseller happy." - Julian Lucas, Harper's

  • "The writing loses direction at times; characters appear who were never introduced, along with details that are unnecessary and uninteresting. Yet the truly potent effect of the book is that by taking on literary history from the underbelly of the French nation -- from the colony just across the sea -- Adimi confronts us with episodes that are simply never spoken of in France" - Elisabeth Zerofsky, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Our Riches (or A Bookshop in Algiers, as the British title has it ...) is based on the life of Edmond Charlot (1915-2004) and his publishing and bookselling ventures, specifically the small bookshop 'Les Vrais Richesses' he opened in Algiers in 1936.
       Kaouther Adimi's novel is multilayered in its presentation: there are sections set in 2017, when the tiny storefront -- measuring only some seven by four meters -- has been bought by someone who plans on letting his nephew open a beignet shop in its stead; the engineering student Ryad travels from France to take on the job of clearing out the place and repainting it for the handover, while Abdallah, the longterm caretaker of the place warily watches what happens to the establishment. Other sections purport to be excerpts from Charlot's notebooks -- his diary -- over the years: first 1935-6, when he has the idea for his publishing house and bookstore and sets them up, and then from later intervals -- 1937 to 1949, and then 1959 to 1961. Still other sections are written in the first-person plural, a communal omniscient narrator observing the situation over the many decades, the voice of the locals in one, describing more generally both the long struggle against the French colonialists and then the near-present-day situation.
       Already in 1935 the very young literature-loving Charlot has a clear idea of what he wants to create:

That is: a store selling new and second-hand books, which is also a lending library, and not just a business but a place where people come to talk and read. A sort of meeting place for friends, but with a Mediterranean outlook too: bringing together writers from all the Mediterranean countries, regardless of language or religion
       He finds a small spot -- 2b Rue Charras (conveniently near the university) -- and sets up shop, his ambition that it: "be a library, a bookstore, a publishing house, but above all a place for friends who love the literature of the Mediterranean". The name of the shop comes from one of Jean Giono's books -- with Charlot having written to the master for permission to use the name.
       The business is, as always, difficult -- with many of the complaints familiar both then and now:
Same thing again today: the customers were only interested in the latest prize-winners. I was trying to introduce them to new writers, recommending Camus's Betwixt and Between: not a flicker of curiosity. I'm talking literature, but they want bestsellers !
       Charlot is also active as a publisher -- his acquaintance with an up-and-comer named Albert Camus certainly helping; "Camus often drops by to lend a hand" .....
       During the war it becomes more difficult to run the business, from the lack of supplies to the military call-ups, but the store survives, in a form: for a while: "It has come to this: Les Vraies Richesses without books". After the war, however, Charlot heads for the big times, setting up his (publishing) shop in Paris. It's a struggle but he reports already in the fall of 1945 that they're: "managing to publish 12 to 15 books a month"; by 1947: "Sales are reaching 100,000, and much more for some titles"; by 1949 Éditions Charlot has flamed out, bankrupt.
       Later scenes from Charlot's life (i.e. notebooks) include the turning point of Camus' death and the final years of Algeria's battle for independence. These entries are tinged with nostalgia and loss, another store of Charlot's repeatedly bombed and ultimately destroyed in 1961, with his correspondence and archives all lost: "A whole life reduced to rubble". Adimi's novel is, of course, an attempt to reconstruct much of this that had been lost -- though she does so only with the lightest of brushstrokes.
       The contemporary chapters, focused on Ryad and his efforts to clean out the small Les Vrais Richesses store as well as longtime caretake Abdallah, are a sad coda to this bit of literary history. The store had already long not been a proper bookstore, bought by the government in the 1990s and maintained as a sort of annex to the National Library of Algiers but pretty much forgotten. There are still books there when Ryad arrives, but he has little interest in them; still, he gets to know Abdallah and some of the locals, making for a nice small slice of contemporary life in Algiers -- and Ryad does get some sense of what is lost here.
       All along, the Algerian struggle against the French loom over much of what happens -- and then more recent domestic struggles. It's quite effectively presented and tied into the narratives.
       Charlot was an important figure in French literature, and of course it is difficult to present all that he did in such a small space; Adimi does bring in a great deal -- but in doing so in this way (mainly through purported notebook-jottings) the account feels almost like a quick summary list. Those parts narrated by the omniscient group-we are a bigger sort of summing-up -- effective as such, and a useful complement to the other sections, but also somewhat limited. The sections focused on Ryad and Abdallah are more expansive -- though also touching on their lives beyond this brief episode -- and are a decent counterpart to the others.
       Our Riches does convey a sense of what was attempted and what was lost, or never achieved, but the subject matters -- Charlot's work as well as Algeria itself -- and their stories are so pared down that it's hard not to feel a great deal is missing. Adimi gives a sense of the scale of these, and many of the lives affected, but when even a Camus figures as barely more than an incidental character it's hard not to think that (too) much is missing. Readers can fill much in, as the text does provide lots of keywords, people, and moments that readers can free-associate from, and as such it forms a good sort of foundation, but all in all it still feels rather thin.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 March 2020

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Our Riches: Reviews: Edmond Charlot: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Algerian-born author Kaouther Adimi was born in 1986.

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