Historical novels are always open to the Johnsonian reproach that what is historical in them is not novel and what is novel in them is not historical. They are neither fully works of the imagination nor yet those of scholarship. The detail if accurate may be criticized as pedantic and if inaccurate as detracting from verisimilitude. Severe critics of the genre would say that it is intrinsically hybrid, in the way that the melons and marrows in my vegetable patch once cross-fertilized and produced eye-catching hybrids that were, however, edible neither as fruit nor vegetable. Yet the historical novel remains popular, and often deservedly so.
This year’s Goncourt Prize for a first novel has gone to an example of the genre titled De nos frères blessés (Of Our Wounded Brothers) by Joseph Andras (a pseudonym). The author, who has made a point of avoiding publicity, refused the prize in the following words addressed in letter to the jury:
Those who have found some interest in this book are here sincerely thanked. Nevertheless, I cannot accept [the award]: competition and rivalry are in my eyes notions foreign to writing and creation. Literature, as I understand it as reader and now as writer, guards its independence closely and keeps its distance from podiums, honors, and the limelight.
Some might find this smug, superior, and even grandiose, as well as not very well-informed about literary history, in the course of which not every great author has played the role of shrinking violet; moreover, it is a curious fact about the power of publicity in the modern world that its refusal can so easily be turned into apotheosis. Be that as it may, the book has garnered the sales consequent upon the award of the prize without the author having had to soil his hands by accepting it. But this, it goes without saying, is no criticism of the book itself.
The refusal of publicity can so easily be turned into apotheosis.
The novel recounts the story of Fernand Iveton, born in Algeria in 1926 of French and Spanish parents, and the only man of European descent to have been guillotined in Algeria during the war of independence. This was a monstrous miscarriage of justice, more the expression of lynch-mob mentality than the result of due process, but the times were highly propitious for mass hysteria, and among the keen proponents of resort to the death penalty at the time was François Mitterand, later President and champion of liberal causes, they having in the meantime become electorally popular.
Iveton was employed as a turner in a gas works in Algiers. He was a sentimental communist, a member of the Algerian Communist Party, then a branch of the French Communist Party. He became a communist not because of what Gibbon, in another context, called “the truth of the doctrine itself,” but because he saw around him the daily injustice of the colonial regime and dreamed of an egalitarian Algeria in which all could live together without distinction of race or religion.
Although in surface three times larger than France itself, Algeria was then, officially speaking, merely three départements (counties) like any other of the French Republic: legally it was not an overseas territory but as much a part of France as Alaska is today part of the United States. Liberty, equality, and fraternity did not flourish there, to put it mildly, and on November 1, 1954, the uprising that was to become the revolution commenced with eleven simultaneous attacks by nationalists on French installations.
The attitude of the French Communist Party, and therefore of the Algerian also, was equivocal and divided. Its predominant doctrinal attitude was that the uprising was a nationalist deviation from pure proletarian revolutionism, but eventually, the Party, fearing to lose all influence on what was clearly something more than a mere temporary disturbance, allowed its members, as individuals, to act on behalf of the National Liberation Front (fln).
Iveton, the communist, was frustrated that his party seemed so passive and inactive; he decided to go on the offensive himself to demonstrate to the Algerians that not all the Europeans were on the side of the French army which was trying the repress the nationalist revolt with more and more ferocity. Iveton planned to put a small bomb at his place of work, but in such a place and in such a fashion that the damage would be minor and no one would be killed. His contacts in the fln would have preferred him to blow up the whole of the gasworks, in what they called another Hiroshima, but Iveton was against the indiscriminate killing (including of Algerians) that this would entail, and with which he strongly disagreed. He therefore intended his act to be more what the anarchists call the propaganda of the deed than a violent revolutionary exploit.
Liberty, equality, and fraternity did not flourish in Algeria, to put it mildly.
He was caught in the act, however, and his bomb, which experts believed could cause no damage more than three to five yards away, was deactivated before it could go off. Iveton was tortured severely to reveal the names and whereabouts of his accomplices. His trial before a military court was summary and he was sentenced to death to the general applause of the public, composed of pieds-noirs, the European ninth of the Algerian population of the time. It was held that his bomb could have killed someone if, as was proved very unlikely, there was someone nearby, and that was enough for the judges to invoke the death penalty.
Appeals for commutation were turned down, both by the committee on which Mitterand sat and by the President of the Republic of the time, René Coty. The reasons for this refusal were probably twofold: first, many Arab or Kabyle Algerians had by then been guillotined, and the government wanted to demonstrate that the guillotine was not just for natives; and second, at the height of the Cold War, the French wanted to demonstrate to the Americans that the real threat in Algeria was that of communism, the better to obtain their support for what might otherwise have seemed to them an unjustified colonial war. Iveton was guillotined on February 11, 1957, having been arrested on November 14 and sentenced to death on November 24, 1956, his trial having lasted less than a day. His defense lawyer, Albert Smadja, who had not volunteered to defend Iveton but had been appointed by the court, was arrested two days after Iveton was guillotined and spent two years in prison.
This is the story of Andras’s novel, which also includes that of Iveton’s wife, Hélène. She was of Polish descent, her father having moved to France before the war. To escape parental control, she married a Swiss at the age of sixteen whom she then left because of his violence, having had a son by him. In 1948, her father returned to Poland to sort out an inheritance; the communist government never let him return. She and her mother were not well-disposed to communism, therefore, but this did not interfere in any way with her relationship with Iveton, whom she met when she was a waitress. They were touchingly and happily in love for several years; they enjoyed the normal pleasures of life: picnics, dances, the cinema, and so forth. The novel includes some of Iveton’s letters to her from the condemned cell while he was a cam: a condamné à mort.
After her husband’s death, Hélène Iveton could find no work in Algeria, had to sell her few possessions, and return to France. Her only son was killed in a road accident there; she lived for forty-one years after her husband’s execution, dying in 1998. The burden of suffering in this world is unevenly and unfairly distributed.
Andras tells the story extremely well; one is moved and appalled by turns. I read the book—it is short—at a sitting. Indeed, I found the story so compelling that I decided to read an earlier book devoted to the Iveton case, Pour l’exemple: l’affaire Fernand Iveton (To Give an Example: The Fernand Iveton Affair) by Jean-Luc Einaudi, published in 1986.
Einaudi, who died in 2014, was a Maoist of extreme (and absurd) views, but that does not mean his researches into the end of French rule in Algeria are without value, and his book on Iveton is well-documented. He diligently interviewed all the survivors who agreed to speak to him and often quotes them verbatim. Perhaps one explanation of his extreme severity towards the French and his indulgence towards Mao and other tyrants of that ilk was an unacknowledged racism: that only the French (or Europeans) were capable of morality and therefore of immorality. The French acted; the Chinese and others reacted, like tennis balls to tennis rackets.
The burden of suffering in this world is unevenly and unfairly distributed.
Reading Einaudi, I sometimes had the strange and completely unexpected sensation of reading Andras’s book a second time, though in a much expanded and less literary form. For example, there is a scene in which the police, after Iveton’s arrest, go to his house to question his wife Hélène, who knows nothing of her husband’s bomb-placing activity but knows that he is likely to fall foul of the police because of his avowed communism. In Einaudi, when the police knock on Hélène’s door, she answers them:
I’m on my own. I don’t have to open the door to you, I don’t know you. What proof do I have that you are the police?
In Andras, it reads:
I’m on my own, I don’t have to open the door to you, I don’t know you, and what proof do I have that you are the police?
Of course, a historical novel has to describe historical events, and Einaudi is the main source of knowledge of those events. Still, the similarity of the terms in which the events are described is often very striking. When the police arrived at the Iveton’s flat, for example, Hélène (according to Einaudi)
decided to play the role of someone who had just woken up from a deep sleep. She undid her hair; she opened the bed.
Hélène disarranges her hair and unmakes the bed. She opens the window of their bedroom and, pretending to yawn, excuses herself to the policemen, she was asleep . . .
According to Einaudi, the policemen enter the flat and start to search:
One of them, a little fat man, goes at it doggedly. He empties the cupboard, throws the linen on the ground, the papers also . . . . Another policeman tries to calm the zeal of his colleague. “Go easy,” he said to him.
A fat policeman, more zealous than the others, inspects the canned food minutely. . . . One of his colleagues asked him . . . to conduct the search with more restraint.
Einaudi tells the story of how Hélène, having married Iveton, forbade him to wear a ring:
Fernand did not wear a ring. Hélène didn’t want him to. Once a friend of hers had three fingers cut off by a machine because of his ring. Even if many people, trusting to this sign, did not realize they were married. One evening, at a dance, a woman friend said to him:
“What if we both go to spend the evening by the sea?”
“But . . . it’s just that I’m not on my own,” he replied.
“Who are you with?”
“Where is she?”
“Sitting next to you.”
In Andras we read that a cellmate in the prison asks Fernand why, if he is married, he does not wear a ring.
It’s Hélène, my wife, who forbade me to wear one: one of her friends had his fingers cut off, . . . three I think, by a machine because of his ring. . . . Once, I remember, we were at a dance and a girl came up to me while I was sitting next to Hélène and asked me, having looked at my hand, if we could spend an evening at the beach together.
The similarities are so numerous (I could multiply them if not quite indefinitely, at least many-fold) that I felt that much of Andras’s book, whose literary quality I admired, was an elegant précis of the more personal parts of Einaudi’s book, with imaginative additions. Even the title, De nos frères blessés, is taken from a poem written by an anonymous prisoner after Iveton’s execution, and published in Einaudi’s book:
Rompant nuit, et silence
Cette immense clameur
De vos frères blessés
Blessés, mais révoltés.
(Breaking night, and silence this immense outcry of your wounded brothers, wounded but rebels.) There is, of course, nothing wrong with this—many titles are quotations or adaptions of quotations—but in view of the fact that the poem is unknown and, to quote Andras, “competition and rivalry are in my eyes notions foreign to writing and creation,” I think perhaps some stronger acknowledgment than Andras provides at the end of his book (“These pages could not have been written without the patient work of inquiry by Jean-Luc Einaudi, who, although deceased, is here thanked”) might have been in order.
My unexpected discovery set me thinking further about the book, in a way in which I would not have thought about it before. It occurred to me that the author’s choice of subject matter, the Iveton affair, was, if not cowardly exactly, at least safe: the author risked no possible obloquy for it. It might be true, as Doctor Johnson said, that we more often require to be reminded than informed, and also that the book is genuinely moving; but it is also true that it does not open our eyes or extend our field of vision. The affair with which it is concerned no longer has any ambiguities for us; it is a subject that the French would call classé, done and dusted. It would now be as difficult to find anyone who thought that Iveton was guillotined in a good cause as it would then have been difficult to find anyone in the courtroom (other than his wife and father) who thought that he should not have been guillotined.
We more often require to be reminded than informed.
Of course, I am presuming here that ambiguity is to be preferred in a novel than morally unambiguous denunciation of a great wrong; this may not always be the case. But the great wrong denounced should be one that is contemporary, not one that took place sixty years ago and is universally acknowledged to have been such. Indeed, one might interpret Andras’s novel as a manifestation of what the editor of the literary pages of Le Monde, Jean Birnbaum, called, in the title of his own book, Un silence religieux (subtitled “The Left Confronted by Jihadism”).
In a very interesting chapter in the book, titled “The fln Generation,” Birnbaum draws attention to the French left’s willful blindness to the real nature of the Algerian revolution, both during it and for at least thirty years afterwards. They did not recognize—they refused to recognize—the religious dimension of the revolution, inevitable given that 99.99 percent of the non-European and Jewish population was Muslim, and only 0.01 percent of it (if that) was Marxist. But the French Left (and not only the French) saw the world through the distorting lens of their ideology: for them religion was but the sigh of the oppressed, to quote their own sect’s Mohammed, a phenomenon that, having no real existence independent of oppression, was destined to disappear once the oppression ceased. Unutterably convinced of the universal validity of their own version of the Enlightenment (as were the original French colonists of Algeria, in fact), they believed that the Algerian Revolution was a branch, albeit an important one, of the world socialist revolution and, led willingly by the nose by those leaders of the fln who knew how to speak their kind of language, blinded themselves to all evidence to the contrary. After independence, the pieds-noirs left en masse, to be replaced (though not in such numbers) by the pieds-rouges, that is to say the fellow-travelers of the revolution who arrived in the hope of assisting the new socialist paradise. They were not welcome, and many of them suffered a long and horrible disillusion, but on their return to France they maintained a kind of omertà, relating nothing of their experiences for decades, Birnbaum thinks because they did not want to tarnish the idea of socialism, but also perhaps, as intellectuals, or as intellectually inclined, they did not want to look stupid. This, it seems to me, might make an excellent subject for a historical novel, rather better than that of Fernand Iveton, though it would take a Conrad to write it.
As it happens, last year’s Goncourt prize for a first novel was also awarded to a book on an Algerian subject, written by an Algerian, Kamel Daoud, titled Meursault, contre-enquête (Meursault, Counter-Report, published in English as The Meursault Investigation). It is a brilliant book, as subtle as Andras’s book is straightforward, that is sufficient to disprove the widespread belief that the novel is as dead as, say, the seventeenth-century masque. Considering the size of the human population, there may not be many good novelists about, but that is not the fault of the genre itself.
Daoud’s story is purportedly written by the brother of the Arab whom Meursault kills in Camus’s celebrated short novel L’Étranger, first published in 1942. In Camus’s book, his hero, Meursault, a man disabused of everything except the sea, the sun, and sex, apparently because the universe has no transcendent meaning or teleology, one afternoon, on the very slightest of pretexts, kills an Arab on the beach at Algiers.
I have read the book several times, because I felt I must be missing something because of my naïve literal-mindedness, but I have never been able to rid myself of the opinion that it is a deeply repellent and indeed evil little book, though very well-written and compelling to read, good as literature if you take the Wildean view that books are either well or badly written and nothing more. Of course, it is an elementary error to identify an author with his character, but nevertheless Camus (some of whose early journalism was written under the name Mersault) did see his creation in a positive light. “One would not be much mistaken in reading L’Étranger,” he wrote, “as the story of a man who, without any heroic attitude, accepts to die for the truth.” Camus finds this admirable.
What is the truth that Meursault is prepared to die for?
But what is the truth that Meursault is prepared to die for? It does not follow from the meaninglessness of the universe, from the fact, as Hume put it much better than Camus, that the life of a man is not more important to the universe than the life of an oyster, that he, Meursault, has to be indifferent to his mother’s death, or that he is entitled to kill a man without excuse and with as little thought as if he had squashed an ant—and this, be it remembered, in the midst of the most dehumanizing war in human history. Try as I might, I can find nothing redeeming about Meursault, or even particularly interesting, except possibly as a case of autism or psychopathy. In L’Étranger, the prosecutor’s summary of the charge against Meursault is held up to ridicule or irony.
“There you are, gentlemen,” said the attorney-general. “I have put before you the course of events which led this man to kill in full possession of his senses. I insist upon it,” he said, “for we are not dealing with an ordinary murder, with an impulsive act in which you could find mitigating circumstances. This man, gentlemen, this man is intelligent. You heard him, didn’t you? He knows how to answer. He knows the meaning of words. And one could not say that he acted without knowing what he was doing.”
To this Meursault responds:
I heard and understood that they considered me intelligent. But I don’t understand how the attributes of an ordinary man can become crushing charges against an accused.
I admit that my own response to this is entirely conventional—I am a conventional man—but I am with the prosecutor here, and see nothing admirable, or even particularly truthful, in Meursault’s reaction, rather the reverse, nor anything of philosophical value either. It doesn’t take much to understand that a man’s state of mind when he kills is relevant to the degree of his guilt, or that a legal system that took no interest in such matters, even in theory, would be monstrous. Or perhaps the idea is that, if one is philosophically sophisticated enough, then killing a man without good reason is of not great import. I am sure that Camus would have considered me an imbecile—a favorite word of his for those who did not understand what he was trying to say—for not understanding the Nietzschean depths of Meursault’s conduct.
No doubt it is imbecilic still to be shocked that Meursault displays no interest in the man whom he kills, not before, during, or after he kills him, and not for a single second. In my career as a prison doctor and psychiatrist I met a few killers like Meursault, who killed with a saurian indifference not only to the victim but to everything else except their ration of tobacco if it arrived late. There was nothing philosophical about this—their behavior was pre-philosophical, as it were—and the only philosophical question that they raised, at least in my mind, was whether they suffered from some neurological deficit that reduced their moral, if not their legal, responsibility.
For Meursault, the victim is simply the Arab, and the starting point of Daoud’s book is that, while the Arab is mentioned twenty-five times, he is not given a name or indeed any human characteristic other than that he is a featherless biped and wears a blue robe. He is invisible to Meursault as a human being; and given the subsequent history of the country, this is not without significance.
Daoud gives him the name of Moussa in the counter-enquiry, and his brother, now in his seventies, relates the effect of Moussa’s murder to a (significantly) nameless French enquirer into the whole story of Meursault and his murder. The story takes place over several evenings over glasses of wine in a bar in Oran—one of the few still to exist, for freedom has in certain respects receded rather than advanced after independence—from which one is entitled to conclude that the narrator is not a strict Muslim: and indeed, his strictures on the Koran are of a frankness that make the author infinitely more of a truth-teller than Camus. We are very far indeed from the safety of Joseph Andras:
I leafed through their own book [they being the believing Muslims], the Book, and I found in it strange redundancies, repetitions, jeremiads, threats, and reveries that gave me the impression of listening to the soliloquy of an old night watchman . . .
This is not a compliment, all the more so since the narrator’s father was a night watchman who deserted his family before leaving the narrator with any memory of him. And of course, Daoud is not to be confused with the character (from whom he is much further in age than was Camus from Meursault) he has created: it is just that I do not think that any believing Muslim could have written that passage (though I may be mistaken).
But Daoud’s book is decidedly not a tract. It is, in fact, one of the best imaginative explorations that I have ever read both of the long-lasting after-effects of the murder of a loved one and of what it is like to be considered by others, in this case the French, to be unimportant, invisible, not even fully human, and therefore requiring no names any more than individual ants require names. This is worse than any possible exploitation.
The narrator grows up entirely in the shadow of the murder.
The narrator grows up entirely in the shadow of the murder. His brother’s tomb is empty because the body was not returned to the family; finding no explanation of the killing, his mother closes in on herself. She keeps her remaining son tied to her, at the same time regretting bitterly that he is not his older brother Moussa. This put me strongly in mind of a friend of mine who died of asthma aged sixteen, possibly because of the bureaucratic delay the ambulance service imposed on the mother, insisting on irrelevant details while her son gasped in the background “I’m dying, I’m dying!” (he was right, he was dying). He was a brilliant boy and had an older, feckless and wastrel brother. When I went to see the mother, she said to me, “Why couldn’t it have been him instead?” I fled before this lightning flash into the possible depths of human despair.
Daoud’s book is like a prolonged flash of lightning, illuminating a whole psychological, cultural, and historical landscape without fear or favor. It is a very necessary book, because in one of my several editions of L’Étranger, directed at French schoolchildren aged sixteen or seventeen, the scholarly apparatus at the rear, full of philosophical flim-flam, scarcely mentions the murder of the Arab as being of any significance at all, commenting on the fact that he is given no name only that it adds to the theatricality of the situation. If I were the French Minister of Education, I would decree that henceforth L’Étranger could not be studied in French schools without also studying Meursault, contre-enquête. This would do more to foster genuine, which is to say imaginative, understanding than any other single measure I could think of.
1 De nos frères blessés, by Joseph Andras; Actes Sud, 144 pages, €17.