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Le Monde (france): "The German Muhajid is a book about fathers and their sons, about the fight against oblivion, amnesia and revisionism, but it is also and above all a novel of initiation for future generations."

Date: Jul 13 2009

Le Monde des Livres
By Christine Rousseau

Boualem Sansal, from Sétif to Auschwitz

In The German Mujahid, the Algerian novelist targets the silences in the official history of his country and the obliteration of the Holocaust.

      Nothing seems to stop Boualem Sansal in his determination to denounce injustices, lies, and diktats of all kinds, to fight amnesia and all manners of historical revisionism, but also to pass on memory; he has faced violent criticism in his country and his recent books were censored, including his latest and fifth novel, The German Mujahid. Its publication is one of the literary events of the new year. Indeed, it is the first time that an Algerian author delves head-on into a subject that is “taboo” in his country: the Holocaust.  And for good measure, he broaches it, as is his habit, through a true story that he heard in the eighties.

At that time, Boualem Sansal was a consultant with the Ministry of Industry. During one of his business trips in the area of Sétif, a “tidy little village” catches his attention. He notes that “usually, those villages are rather dusty, especially in this region of high plateaus.” Intrigued, he inquires about it and finds out that it is known as “the German man’s village” after a former Nazi who had taken charge of it, after fleeing to Egypt at the end of the war. From there, the secret services of Nasser had sent him to Algeria to work as an expert with the ALN (the National Liberation Army). When the country became independent, he took the Algerian citizenship and converted to Islam.

“This is not an isolated case,” Boualem Sansal explains. “Some Germans who came to fight along with the Algerians during the war of liberation even held important positions after the country’s independence. This is part of the secret history of all wars.”  In Algeria, it is sealed history. “The FLN constructed a history that is unique, smooth and neat, with no rough edges. It was written in stone. You cannot add or retract anything. When people want to look beyond this skeletal history, they find nothing. All the archives are locked. They stop their research or they are ostracized.” However, literature is there take over..

       For all that, after the discovery of this Nazi turned Mujahid, the novelist was assailed by a flood of questions. “First, I wondered if an Algerian man, an Arab and a Muslim, can speak about the Holocaust when he is part of a cultural space in which it has been hidden. In Algeria, the television has never broadcasted any documentary at all on the extermination camps. In our official history, there is not a word about it. How then do you talk about something that does not exist?”

      From questionings to tentative steps, Boualem Sansal, who, for almost two decades has not stopped reading novels or essays on this subject, has gone forward. “At the beginning, I was present as authorial voice, but I quickly realized that it did not work. The book was turning into a historical novel. It was too factual and I did not want that. I needed to go to the end of all my questionings, and in particular, those concerning transmission and what is passed down through generations.  That is why I gave two sons to this German man. But they could not live in Algeria, because the Holocaust would not have meant anything to them. They could not have gone very far in their questioning. I needed to place them in a situation of freedom so that they could really ask themselves questions. I imagined that their father had sent them to France to pursue their studies, as in fact a number of Algerian parents do or dream to do in their concern for their children’s education.”

 The brothers Schiller were born: Rachel (a contraction of Rachid and Helmut) and Malrich (Malek/Ulrich). Half German, half Algerian, the two boys are sent, upon reaching adolescence, to France and their Uncle Ali, “a good guy with a heart as big as a truck” who lives near Paris, in a dismal and messy suburb. This setting is reflected in the life of Malrich, who path is less linear and more troubled than that of his older brother, Rachel, a serious and poised man who seems to succeed at everything. “He had this big job with this giant American company, he had the girl, the house, the car, the credit cards, every second accounted for, me, I was zoning round H24 with the dregs of the estate.”

      Until the day when Malrich finds out that this model brother whom he would now only see infrequently has killed himself in his garage. At the site of the crime, he discovers him with his head shaved, his face covered with soot, and wearing “weird” striped pajamas. Several days later, Com’dad, the neighborhood police captain (a guardian angel of sorts for Malrich) hands Malrich the journal that his brother had been writing for two years and encourages him to read it, to understand the symbolic reach of his brother’s gesture.

     From there, everything will mesh together, through a remarkable stratagem on the part of the author, and the depths of despair seem limitless: Malrich’s journal, which he keeps as a sort of outlet, reveals the one of Rachel and the terrible tragedy that was its catalyst.

      On April 24, 1994, in the middle of the “black decade” that envelops Algeria, the village of Aïn Deb, near Sétif, is attacked by members of the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) and its population is massacred.  As soon as he is informed of this, Rachel decides to travel to his native village and visit his parents’ graves. There, he discovers, in addition to the strange administrative oddity whereby his parents are buried under different names, a little suitcase in the family house that contains his father’s military records and SS insignia, along with letters signed “Jean 92.” Under the shock of this discovery, Rachel falters, locks himself up into silence and isolates himself from everyone and everything. And his long descent to hell starts. “I travel back through time, I search in darkness, I am going to probe the greatest calamity of all times and try to understand why I bear its weight on my shoulders (…) I am so afraid to meet my father where he shouldn’t be, where no man can stand and remain a man. My own humanity is at stake.”

      It is an initiatory journey, fostered by readings, of Primo Levi’s work especially, that lead him in his father’s footsteps from Hamburg to Cairo, via Auschwitz, at the heart of the extermination “enterprise” whose every aspect is ingeniously detailed by Boualem Sensal. “I wanted readers—especially those who know nothing on this subject; I am thinking about the Algerian population, but also about all the people in North Africa and the Arab world for whom this book is intended— to understand: I wanted them to “live” there for a dozen pages, to feel the absolute horror of this machinery; and to demonstrate to them that this was not only a war crime, it was a lot more than that.”

      This gripping descent also leads Rachel to the depth of a horrifying silence: that of a father, an executioner against whom his son’s most poignant questionings run aground. Rachel asks this most acute question: “Are we accountable for our parents’ crimes?”

      Malrich will appropriate these questions in his way, integrating them and struggling with them in his everyday life, into the reality of a cité (housing project) that has been poisoned by Islamism. He will go so far as to produce as to juxtapose fuehrer and imam, estate and concentration camps… Boualem Sansal stands by these associations, while emphasizing the specific character of the Holocaust. “Nothing can be compared to it. On the other hand, I believe that there are many similarities between Nazism and Islamism. I do think that they use the same techniques, the same instruments.”

      The German Muhajid is a book about fathers and their sons, about the fight against oblivion, amnesia and revisionism, but it is also and above all a novel of initiation for future generations. But Boualem Sansal does not delude himself on this point: “I know that the path will be long before my novel reaches its public. It may not produce its intended effect for another ten or fifteen years.” He then adds solemnly: “As it will take me a lot of time to emerge from this novel. I even wonder, indeed, if we can ever emerge from this…”