The Angels Die is set in Algeria between the two world wars. It tells the story of Turambo, a young, poor Arab boy who grows up to be a promising boxer. It is narrated by Turambo and begins when he is in prison, awaiting execution.
Turambo grows up with his mother, uncle and his family. His own father is absent after he went to fight in World War One. The early part of the book is a series of increasingly bleak vignettes showing the poverty and cruelty that Turambo experiences in the slums. It was hard to stay focused without a narrative but the story begins to flow as Turambo reaches adolescence, when he and his friend Sid Roho run away to the city of Oran.
Life in Oran remains tough but Turambo at least sees possibilities, that life can be different from the slums. He forms a significant friendship with a boy called Gino. In the city he experiences different cultures – and prejudices. He meets Europeans (‘Roumis’) of various nationalities, experiences racism against Arabs and sees the ambiguous status of Gino, who is of Italian descent but Jewish.
Turambo takes a number of menial jobs but his temper gets him into trouble. His refusal to accept low-paid work and humiliation and his willingness to stand and fight win him the chance to train as a boxer. Life opens up for him but he faces new challenges and ultimately finds himself in prison.
Turambo kicks against the limited opportunities offered to him, and this is one of the key themes of the book. You can admire his spirit, for insisting on making choices where it appears that none exist, or you can see his behaviour as self-destructive. Neither the risk takers like Sid Roho, nor conformists like Turambo’s uncle, find peace and security. Perhaps Turambo’s nature means he couldn’t behave differently, but even if he could there are no success stories in his life for him to emulate.
The Angels Die asks profound questions about choice and fate, about the subtle and overt ways people are constrained, and about why some submit and some fight.
I received a copy of The Angels Die from the publisher via Netgalley.
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