Edmond Charlot (1915-2004) passed down a secret to the countless people he encouraged to write: “Buy a desk, the plainest one you can find, as long as it has a drawer that locks. Lock the drawer and throw away the key. Every day, write whatever you like, enough to cover three pages. Slip the pages in through the gap at the top of the drawer. Without rereading them, obviously. At the end of the year, you’ll have about 900 handwritten pages.”
This anecdote is taken from the fictional journal kept by the Algerian publisher, pieced together by novelist Kaouther Adimi. It helped forge the legend of the man who founded the Les Vraies Richesses bookstore, named after a novel by Jean Giono. Charlot discovered Camus, helping him print his very first play, was a friend of Algerian poet Jean Sénac, and published André Gide. He was just 21 years old when he opened his circulating library at 2 bis Rue Charras (now Rue Hamani) in Algiers. An admirer of Adrienne Monnier, who founded La Maison des Amis des Livres and Shakespeare and Company in Paris with Sylvia Beach, he wanted to use his store as a bridge across the Mediterranean, “a place for meeting and reading” created by and for young people, where customers could purchase and borrow books. A phrase was displayed above the door: “One who reads is worth two who don’t.”
Quand When the novel’s protagonist Ryad, a Parisian student, arrives in Algiers in 2017, Les Vraies Richesses is closed. After being used as an annex of the National Library of Algeria in the 1990s, it has fallen into disrepair. All that is left are traces of the past, a photo of Charlot, and Abdallah, the store’s old employee, now the melancholic guardian of tattered memories. Sent by the new owner who wants to turn the store into a donut shop, Ryad is tasked with emptying the space and disposing of the books. In a sign of the times, the government and the ministry of culture see little point in preserving this part of the city’s heritage.
Born in Algeria in 1986, Adimi spent a year scouring the archives to reassemble Charlot’s notebooks, the centerpiece of her novel. From 1935 through 1961, she elegantly portrays the life and struggles of the young intellectual who became a publisher for the Free French Forces, and who saw his bookstore bombed by the OAS paramilitary group, who also destroyed Camus’ manuscripts and Giono’s letters during the Algerian War. Through the adventures of Charlot’s bookstore, Adimi paints the picture of a country in turmoil, paying tribute to literature and all those who fight to keep it alive.