Qantara (France): "In a long raincoat, his hair blowing in the wind, and the romantic look of another time, Boulaem Sansal arrives, smiling, in front of the Gallimard publishing house."
Date: Jul 13 2009
interview with Fouzia Marouf
Words against Evil: Boualem Sansal
The Algerian writer, who became known in 1999 with his book Le Serment des Barbares, discusses his fifth latest and novel, The German Mujahid, in which he continues his fight against fanaticisms of all kinds.
In a long raincoat, his hair blowing in the wind, and the romantic look of another time, Boulaem Sansal arrives, smiling, in front of the Gallimard publishing house. The mischievous and somewhat dreamy eyes belong to the author whose pen denounces lost hopes and silent evils, and who writes of an Algeria that yearns for other lands and piece of paradise. When his novel Le Serment des Barbares appeared in 1999, it heralded the writing carrier of this former engineer, who holds a doctorate in economy and has taught in university. Other books followed, other rebellious cries: L’enfant Fou de l’Arbre Creux, Dis-moi le Paradis, Harraga, Poste Restante, Algers, Lettre de Colère et d’Espoir à mes Compatriotes. Sansal has been awarded numerous prizes. In 2003, his critical stand against the arabization of education and the islamization of his country cost him his post as a high-ranking civil servant. His fifth, deeply moving novel, The German Mujahid, was published in France in 2008 (in the US, it will be published in October 2009 by Europa Editions).
“The German Mujahid” relates a terrible discovery made by two brothers raised in a suburb of Paris, far from the village of Aïn Deb, in Algeria, where their parents were murdered in 1994 by the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). Their father, who held the prestigious title of Mujahid, was a former SS officer. How did the idea of this plot come about?
This work is the fruit of a long progression. I discovered this village, which truly exists, twenty-five years ago. As I was touring the region of Sétif in Algeria for professional reasons, I came across a village, quite by chance, that caught my attention: unusually well-kept and tidy, it was very different from the others. I had a coffee in the county town of Sétif, where I told of my discovery. I learned that the place was known as “the German man’s village” because a German former Mujahid lived there: he was the head of the village and he was also an ex-Nazi officer who had worked in the extermination camps. I was not a writer yet, but I never forgot that story. Two years ago, after I finished Harraga, it came back to me and I thought that I would like to write a novel around that man in the following way: if he had children, how would they react if they found out that their father had been part of such a genocide, of the Holocaust? What would be the attitude to adopt when faced with such a frightful revelation?
You commented about these two brothers: “They are not real but I felt bad that I inflicted such pain on them.”
Yes, I placed Rachel and Malrich face to face with the discovery of this terrible past. Rachel, who is a sensitive, educated man, commits suicide because he cannot bear this revelation. For months, he tries to understand how his father, who took part in the Algerian war, was able to commit such abomination. But his discovery is also two-fold and all the more insurmountable when this horrible revelation is paired with that of the extermination of the Jews, the Holocaust.
As for Malrich, for whom I have strong feelings, he is younger and uneducated. Without the means to examine this discovery further, he takes a rather astonishing step: he transposes the acts committed by his father into the heart of his suburb outside Paris, which is in the grip of fundamentalism. The Holocaust is a unique event in the history of humanity and Malrich establishes a parallel between this event and Islamism. Unlike his brother, he decides to react.
Isn’t the parallel between Nazism and Islamism extreme?
There is a thin line between Nazism and Islamism. If the Islamists ever came to power, they would behave in a more atrocious way than the Nazis. I have seen what they are capable of in Algeria, and there they were not even in power.
Do you believe that the fight against Islamism and the safety of Algeria depends on the ijtihad (2)?
All the methods used to fight Islamism have failed: Moslems must therefore re-appropriate Islam for themselves. But for it to become an asset, they must make an effort, a ijtihad is necessary; they alone must save their religion and reconcile it with modernism. Other religions have already applied themselves to this task. In times past, Christianity went through conflicts that led to religion wars, followed by a period of reflection and the Age of Enlightenment, which brought with it secularism and modernism. Since then, there hasn’t been any more conflict between modernity and the State. Muslim intellectuals must take a step. It is not for the State to defend religion or write history, the theologians and Muslims themselves are the ones who must do it.
Coming back to your novel, Malrich’s revolt echoes Rachel’s pain through their respective journals. Why did you choose to write the book in the form of two diaries?
When I started to write The German Mujahid, I was the omniscient narrator who explained the correct version of history to these two brothers, and I realized that I was doing all the talking, not them. The only way to have them heard was to give them their own voices so that I would not have any part invested in their story. I had to merge Rachel’s story with Malrich’s, without mine. I also chose this form of writing to add a dimension of veracity to this narrative and to avoid the pointless narrator’s stance, which would not have been the characters’.
Throughout your work, you explore the complexity of human relationships. Should we see there an identification with your characters?
As soon as I set out to present a character, I try to place myself at the heart of the truth he carries in him. There is unquestionably an identification process that happens. For instance, I fully identified myself with Lamia, then with Chérifa, the characters in Harraga and I found it difficult to leave them at the end of the novel. It is true that for a while when I write, I don’t know where I stand anymore, I have trouble knowing who I am, I get into the skin of my characters – without violating them so that they wouldn’t be untrue, and so as not to write bad novels. They are a little like my children. The inspector in Le Serment des Barbares is a character who is especially dear to me, as is the writer in Dis-moi le Paradis, who somewhat resembles me. As for Farida and Romyla, other women from that novel, I was inspired by real people, since those are distant cousins whose identity and own story I borrowed.
In Harraga, you evoke another reality, that of Algerian youths who risk their lives smuggling into Europe.
I am suffer for these harragas, these totally desperate young people who choose to throw themselves at sea, aware of Algeria’s destiny and of a situation that is not going to improve. They tell themselves: “I am trying my luck!” It is terrifying to see every day this contingent of young people dying, carried away by the waves. This suggests the dramatic breadth of misery in which they are imprisoned by their nation. I must also remind you that these youths come from the inland: these are people who leave their village to come to the capital where they are hijacked by Islamism or terrorism. Quite often, they have run off to Algiers, or to Oran in the hope of a better life, and when they arrive there, their only reward is a wretched life and its array of traps.
Who do you write for?
I write for the Algerian people. I am not published there, unfortunately, but I address myself to my compatriots, I narrate stories that I face, and I tell them: Do what you want with these, here is how I perceive things. You should mistrust writers who lecture, it is all propaganda.
Is the role of the writer to recall the tragedies of history?
In my opinion, the writer shouldn’t feel invested with a mission. He is here to tell a story, to give his viewpoint on the world and to share it with his readers while simply saying to them: do as you wish with this, if what I offer brings you pleasure, great, otherwise, I am sorry. It is for the reader to seize what is in a book and to integrate it to his own reasoning.
You aim to deconstruct myths: those of this former Nazi and of the history of Algeria’s national liberation.
The powers that be often tend to present history for their own benefit. The USSR made profound use of it, fleecing their history permanently to the point that entire archives disappeared. As for Algeria, it hid its history of colonization. The Berber people, one of the largest in the Mediterranean, was subjected in turn to the Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Ottoman and French presence. This forced the question of the identity into becoming a debate between those who call themselves Arabs and those who call themselves Berber. And yet, in order for the Algerians to be proud of their identity, history must free itself without the intervention or manipulation of governments. This is precisely the task that I am endeavoring to do: I lay tracks for the Algerians.
How did you go from your post as a high-ranking civil servant to writing?
Thanks to my best friend, the writer Rachid Mimouni. He strongly encouraged me, we often spoke of literature and he would constantly tell me that I should write, to which I would respond that I had nothing to say. We worked together and he would sometimes read my reports; each time, he couldn’t help saying: “Put your talent in the service of literature!” And then came 1994-1995, the civil war. I was assailed by many questions during that period and writing gave me the chance to transcribe them.
Which writers touched you?
It is true that I have read a great deal throughout my whole life, and like everyone, I have gone through a period of French literature reading the works of Victor Hugo, Paul Eluard and Baudelaire. I also let myself be carried away by Russian literature, I read Tolstoï and Dostoïevski, and by the South American writers, particularly Fuentez and Garcia Marquez. German philosophy had a great impact on me as well, especially Nietzsche. But the most extraordinary book in my eyes is Don Quixote. I must say that I am fascinated by its multiple aspects, both its amusing side, the picaresque tale and the very esoteric one. You need to read it over and over again to discover the different keys to it. If This is a Man, a major book by Primo Levi, which I mention in The German Mujahid demonstrates how low humanity is capable of falling.
Where does the vibrant humanity which defines your work come from, despite the grimness of the subjects?
It probably stems from the fact that I evoke a reality that I have personally and profoundly felt. Moreover, the characters that pass through my novels have truly existed and carried within them a deep humanity which I must recreate so as not to betray them.