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Le Point (france): Interview with Boualem Sansal

Date: Jul 13 2009

Le Point (France)
By Valerie Marin la Meslee

A Man Broken

The Algerian writer Boualem Sansal confronts Nazism and Islamism with this deeply affecting story of two brothers. An impressive novel.


Far from Bourmedès, in Algeria, from police controls and terrorists’ threats, Boualem Sansal sits in a nonsmoking café on Rue du Bac; he has been roaming and savoring Paris for a week. “Just now, someone approached me in the street and said: ‘I wouldn’t be able to say the things you write in your novels. Coming from a pied-noir [a French person born in Algeria], it would not be accepted’. I was somewhat like that man before I wrote on the Holocaust. I asked: Did I have the right to do it? Would I be credible?”

Sansal does indeed confront the subject in his fifth novel, The German Mujahid. At the beginning of the eighties, he discovered, not far from Sétif, a village called “The German Man’s village,” named after a German man who made a lasting impact there. This man fought for in the war of independence with the FLN (National Liberation Front) and then converted to Islam. All these feats must have helped erase his past . . . as a Nazi. “The Holocaust is ignored in Algeria, where ‘traditional’ anti-Semitism goes hand in hand with the anti-Jewish official line,” the author notes. Haunted for a long time by the “German man,” he eventually discovers in this story the opening for a book: one day, the criminal’s children discover their father’s past.

The oldest of the Schiller sons is Rachel. On April 25 1994, in France, where he now resides, he learns that Islamists’ have massacred the inhabitants of his native village. His parents are among the murdered villagers. He travels to the village and discovers a paternal secret in the family house: behind the respected sheik was an SS official. The “executioner’s son” does not survive this revelation: he commits suicide. Sansal believes that, like Rachel, he would not have been able to bear it. “But Rachel is educated, reflective, so I invented a younger brother who would be instinctive, with no real education or the suitable tools.” Malrich reads the journal that his brother left him. He uses some passages to write his own (the book we are reading) and the shallow life of the young unemployed immigrant falls to pieces: Malrich discovers his father’s past: at 17, he learns about Hitler, the concentration camps, the extermination of the Jews. Using this barbaric past as a moral compass, he reassesses his every day life in a troubled suburban cité, the infamous French housing projects. He tells his friends about the fuehrer, comparing him to the imam who lords over the estate, which he describes as a concentration camp, and he calls those who have let Islamism seize power there “sheep”. Sansal is not afraid to shock: “Malrich has received two major psychological shocks, everything gets thrown together in his head. He may escape terrorist indoctrination by linking Nazism to Islamism, by mixing everything up, but he will have become aware of things. Since the eighties, my country has lived in a quasi-permanent state of war. Its people compare Algeria to an open-air prison. It is the case in the suburbs of Algiers, and in some French suburbs, where I have heard Algerian people wonder if it has been worth it to leave their country in order to flee Islamic terror.”

The author of Le Serment des Barbares has not yet re-emerged from the subjects dealt with in his impressive novel. “Several times, I had to interrupt the writing of this book because I was suffering too much.  I handed in the manuscript in March 2007. Since then, I have been rereading Primo Levi, each time as if it were the first time. Everything seems so futile.”

The young Malrich’s abiding desire is to extricate himself from his harsh reality. How? This may well be the subject of Boualem Sansal’s next novel.