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Lire (France): "One can understand why Boualem Sansal is persona non grata in his country."

Date: Jul 13 2009

Lire: Delphine Peras

Algeria: Twisting the Knife

From the Second World War to North Africa: in his new novel, Boualem Sansal confronts two brothers born of a mixed marriage into history and horror and revitalizes his daring political commitment

      You really shouldn’t trust his sweet, youthful air and his casual student appearance: do not trust his calm voice, his quiet smile and tender eyes: Boualem Sansal is filled with rage. He does not shout it, he writes it. Or rather, he shouts it in his writing. Since his first novel Le Serment des Barbares, published in 1999, this fifty-nine-year-old Algerian writer has been denouncing his country’s moral bankruptcy with extreme virulence. With unusual eloquence, he condemns the military together with the Islamists, launches a scathing attack on an Algeria eroded by “trafficking, religion, bureaucracy, a culture of crime, schemes and clans, tyrant glorification, the apology of death, a love for the flashy, a passion for diatribes,” as he lets his heroin Lamia say so well in Harraga (2005) his fourth novel. From book to book, in dazzling French and with a cheerful alacrity devoid of hatred, Boualem Sansal presses on, rails, rants and raves, sticks his pen relentlessly where it hurts. After two essays, the vitriolic “Poste Restante: Algers. Lettre de colère et d’espoir à mes compatriotes” (Gallimard 2006) and “Petit éloge de la mémoire” (Folio 2007) which recounts four thousand years of Algeria’s history, he comes back to fiction with The German Mujahid. This staggering novel ties the horrors of the Second World War to those of Algeria’s in the 1990s. Two dirty wars that link Nazism and Islamism: a daring parallel to better condemn revisionism and the devastating effects of all fanaticism.

      Born in Algeria of an Algerian mother and a German father, the Schiller brothers grew up in France with their uncle, not knowing anything of their origins and history. The older one, Rachel (a contraction of Rachid and Helmut) has followed the straight and narrow, becoming an executive in an international firm, marrying an attractive woman and buying a villa. The younger brother, Malrich (a contraction of Malek and Ulrich), 17, has taken a downward path and hangs about with the wretched youths of the estate. The novel opens with Rachel’s suicide on April 24, 1996. As he reads his brother’s private journal, Malrich finds the reasons for this desperate gesture: having returned to his native village to honor the grave of his parents’, who were massacred by the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) on April 24, 1994, Rachel discovered that their father, Hans Schiller, was a former Nazi. That father who had taken Algerian citizenship and converted to Islam, who had settled near Sétif, in the village of Aïn Deb and become its respected leader—that father had worked in the concentration camps… It is Rachel’s turn to be “ashamed of being alive”. But he is going to try to understand and take up the torch that had been dropped too soon by Rachel to shed light on this familial and national story filled with gruesome shadows.

      Rachel’s journal, serious and dejected, is answered by Malrich’s, cocky and incensed. This original narrative structure, combined with an alternation of tones allows every horror to be recounted. The subject is scalding, but never only for its shock value. Typically, the author of “L’enfant fou de l’arbre creux” was inspired by a true story: “This village really exists”, he explained during a visit in Paris last year. “I discovered it by chance at the beginning of the 1980’s, while I was travelling for business: a very charming, very neat village, in contrast with the dusty hamlets of the region. I soon found out that it was due to the German man who was “managing it”, a former SS officer who had become a mujahid and was considered a hero.” This is precisely the taboo that Boualem Sansal smashes to pieces in his novel: one does not talk of the Holocaust in Algeria. “Do a survey in Algiers: you will not find more than ten people who know about it; even then, most will say that it is an invention of the Jews. There has never been a movie, a book, or a conference on the subject, no school program mentions it. But isn’t the novelist going too far when he makes a parallel between today’s Algeria and Nazi Germany? “No, those who led Algeria to civil war used the same methods as the Nazis: one party, the country’s militarization, extreme propaganda, omnipresence of the police, denouncements, falsification of history, xenophobia, allegation of a conspiracy orchestrated by Israel and the United States, etc. In the French suburbs, the Islamists impose a way of life and instill an indoctrination that brings the concentration camps to mind.”

      One can understand why Boualem Sansal is persona non grata in his country, which, however, he refuses to leave, even after being dismissed from his post as a high-ranking civil servant with the Ministry of Industry, in 2003, following the publication of his third novel, “Dis-moi le paradis.”  The situation did not get any better and “Poste restante” was censured. “At first, it hurts a lot. Afterwards, you tell yourself that it is better this way, things are clear-cut. But all I do is write what my fellow countrymen and I have been saying for forty years.” It is then out of necessity -- the express need to get this shared desperation down on paper after all the hopes following Independence -- that this ex-engineer became a writer.

      Born October 15, 1949 in Teniet-el-Haad, in the former district of Orléansville,   Boualem Sansal, the second child of four brothers, lost his father when he was very young. From his grandfather, a stationmaster who served in WWI, he inherited a strong attachment to French culture. Although he was an avid reader, the young man acquired technical training: the new Algeria was calling more for builders than orators. He settled on writing very specialized books, one of which on turbojets… Nothing close to the real literature of his friend the novelist Rachid Mimouni, whose first reader was Boualem Sansal. But starting in 1991, Islamic terror fell on the country and the black decade that followed forced Mimouni to seek exile in Marocco, whereas Sansal stayed shut away in his apartment in Boumerdès, not far from Algiers. “After 7 o’clock at night, there was no one left on the streets, apart from the military and terrorists. We did not have a life anymore, we could not go out and I took to writing.” He mailed  “Le serment des barbares” manuscript to Gallimard. Jean-Marie Laclavetine, the editor, was immediately enthusiastic: “I loved his quick tempered, ferocious and sarcastic tone right away,” he remembers, “Boualem Sansal is well aware that he does not have any way out other than writing. He does it with a quiet courage that worries his friends but that demands respect as well. Contrary to what his detractors try to say, he is deeply attached to his country. With The German Mujahid, his point is not provocation, but the desire to tell a truth that no one wants to hear in Algeria.” The Western world also refuses to hear, Boualem Sansal deplores, and he makes an urgent call for us to wake up to the stranglehold fundamentalist Islam has on the world.

Sansal does not mince words, though he may well have become increasingly doubtful of their power…