ALGIERS (Reuters Life!) - Boualem Sansal’s new novel about guilt and memory shocked Algerians by tracing a connection between the Nazi death camps of World War Two and Islamist militancy in contemporary Europe and north Africa.
The prize-winning author is unapologetic, saying the novel “Le Village de l’Allemand” (The German Man’s Village) has a universal resonance beyond modern Algeria and former colonial power France, the countries in which most of the action is set.
An Industry Ministry official before he began writing novels in the 1990s, Sansal first wrote the story in French. It is to be published next year in about 15 other languages.
He spoke to Reuters about truth and responsibility.
Q - What was the genesis of this story?
A - In part, my encounter with this village. I was in a car with two or three friends, we were working together. We had a coffee there, then we went off to Setif town nearby where we had work to do. We spoke to our hosts there, telling them we sort of lost our way in the country and drifted, and then stumbled upon this very strange village. They said “Ah, the German’s village.” They told us that this German was an SS man who had worked in the death camps, then after the Second World War he fled to Egypt because he was a wanted man, and in Egypt he had had extremely eventful adventures ... When the Algerian liberation war broke out ... he worked as an instructor at the general staff (of the Algerian revolutionary army). Did the general staff know of his past? I don’t think so. After the war his past was discovered. It was awkward. So he was removed from the army. As a war criminal, he couldn’t go anywhere so he stayed in Algeria, converted to Islam and married.
Q - What was your aim in writing this book?
A - My aim was to address the problem of transmission (of history) and responsibility, two questions which concern me greatly because I live in a country where history is tampered with. Algerians don’t know their own history. History has become an ideology. It’s no longer a scientific subject. It’s an instrument of power. If history can be cut, it is cut, and if it cannot be cut, it’s deformed. Any time it’s possible to restore things to the thread of history, it should be done.
As for responsibility, we’re responsible for what? Of course we’re responsible for what we do, but ... human beings are eventually co-responsible for practically everything.
Q - Are we responsible for the crimes of our parents?.
A - I’ve asked this question for 10 years as regards the Islamists, who killed thousands of people in an absolutely abominable manner. They have children who today are four or five. One day they will be 20, 25, they’ll discover their parents committed (crimes). How will they react? At a given moment the question of responsibility arises. ‘My father is responsible. I am the descendant of my father. I am responsible. What can I do to efface that...’ This question anguishes me.
And the fact that Islamists were killed? Well, I consider myself a secular democrat, but certainly in some way I am responsible.
Q - But children don’t have the intentions of their parents?
A - He (the child) is not guilty, but he is responsible. First of all he has the obligation to seek the history of his family. He would certainly know that his father was in the maquis...Of course, he could say ‘I don’t care, it was my father, it was he who killed. He will give an accounting to God’. It’s a tormenting question.
Q - Is it fair to compare Islamists and Nazis?
A - If I judge from my own experience here in Algeria and the experience of the Taliban in Afghanistan, I would say these are worse.
Q - Has the novel had positive or negative reactions?
A - (In the Arab and Muslim world) there are people who say ‘The poor guy, he’s fallen into a trap. He believes these stories. It’s an invention of the Jews.’ In contrast in other countries, there’s been a positive reaction.
Q - Is a truth and reconciliation process possible in Algeria?
A - No, absolutely not, because such a process of reconciliation is based on the truth. The truth makes too many people afraid. The authorities are illegitimate. They cannot accept that there is a process that produces a true history, because when you start a process, you can’t stop it. People will go further and further and will demand an accounting. Those who have made history in this country are still alive and in power.
Q - In a country where history hangs so heavily, is the novel the best way to address history and important questions?
A - Absolutely. What’s more, it’s the only way because (a historian) needs archives, access to documents. But the archives are not in Algeria. They are in France. They are in Rome for the Roman period. They are in Istanbul for the Turkish period, in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo for the Arab era. And so historians have had a hard time getting the sources.
Q - Do you see any sign of optimism in Algeria?
A - I notice that people in general are optimistic because it’s the Mediterranean culture. People know that sooner or later things will head in a good direction. On the other hand, they are very pessimistic in the short term.
Q - Will peace finally come to Algeria one day?
A - Yes I think so, with the end of this (liberation) war generation. There will be a change of generations. The weight of history will hang more lightly.
Reporting by William Maclean, editing by Paul Casciato