Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Crimes of Our Fathers: Germany—Algeria—France

The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal

Are we answerable for the crimes of our  fathers?  That is the question that haunts this bold and surprising novel by Algerian writer, Boualem Sansal, a story that moves back and forth through time and space, from present-day France to WWII Germany, from Paris to Frankfurt to the Algerian bled, to the desolate village of Aïn Deb, then back again to Paris, to an unnamed North African banlieue or suburb, one very much like Clichy-sous-Bois, made famous by the violent clashes between local youth and the French police in 2005 after two boys were accidentally electrocuted in an electrical substation while in hiding.

I first heard of Algeria when I was a child living with my family in the South of France. Charlie Joubert, the husband of my schoolteacher, the beautiful Lucienne, was from Algeria, a pied-noir or “black-foot,” as such Algerian-born Frenchmen were commonly if derisively known. Hounded out of Algeria following Independence, then treated as second-class citizens in France, the pieds-noirs have remained an embittered, doubly-alienated lot. In the little town of Dions where I lived in the early 1970’s, Monsieur Joubert was still viewed as an alien, an outsider, my schoolmates—no doubt voicing the prejudice of their parents—often muttering “kouskous” when they passed him in the street.

This story, however, is about a different sort of alienation, that of two Algerian boys born to a German father and a Berber mother. Opening with the suicide of one of the brothers, the eldest, a boy called Rachel (after Rahim), in the Paris suburb where he lived, the story follows the tortured emotional and psychological journey of his younger brother, Malrich (after Malek), as he struggles to come to terms not only with his seemingly successful brother’s suicide by gas and with the murder of his parents in Algeria by Islamic fundamentalists, but with his father’s secret Nazi past. 

Told as a journal within a journal, the novel explores, in fiction, in heretofore uncharted ways, the long and deadly embrace of Europe and North Africa. Widely praised as the first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust, The German Mujahid is a brave and withering condemnation of European colonialism, German fascism, and Muslim anti-Semitism, as well as a bracing excoriation of the sort of radical Islam that remains the bane of North Africa and the Middle East today. Above all, it is a tale of self-discovery and the burden of justice, a story about that most essential human task: the charge—to each of us—to reckon with the past.

Boualem Sansal was born in 1949 in Algeria.  Since the publication of his novel Le serment des barbares, which was awarded the Best Frist Novel Prize in France in 1999, he has been widely considered one of his country’s most important contemporary authors.  He lives with his wife and tow daughters in Algiers.  The German Mujahid is published in English by Europa Editions.  Check out their list at .

Peter Adam Nash

No comments:

Post a Comment