"The traditions of all dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living" or so wrote Marx and so too do their sins. In this short but brilliant novel, Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal explores the effects of the discovery of a hidden past by the current generation. While there is absolutely nothing new and certainly nothing unique in this theme, two features distinguish this effort from others. First, as prominently highlighted on the book cover, this is the debut investigation and acknowledgment of the Holocaust by an Arab novelist, a genuine landmark. Second, while the author's style is hardly unique and is obviously indebted to its many predecessors, the writing is compelling and the story well-told.
Sansal's protagonist, Rachel Schiller is the elder of two sons of former SS Captain Hans Schiller, an expatriate hidden away in a remote traditional village located in pre-independence Algeria. Capt. Schiller distinguished himself in the guerrilla movement (the FLN, National Liberation Front) as a weapons instructor, gaining the titles "mujahid" and "sheikh". During the Islamist insurgency (which occurred in the 1990s in response to military intervention in election results), brutally but effectively suppressed by the Algerian military, Schiller and his Algerian wife were murdered, along with a score of townspeople by rampaging members of the Armed Islamic Group, a vicious Islamic fundamentalist movement, itself an offshoot of the fundamentalist, populist "Islamic Salvation Front". The urbane Rachel, highly placed employee of a French-based multinational business, travels to the small town of Ain Deb to investigate the matter himself. During the course of his examination of family effects, he discovers paperwork which clearly implicates his father in not only the SS, but one which suggests an intimate involvement in the extermination mechanism of the Nazi state. It turns out that Hans, a chemical engineer, probably turned his talents to developing, testing and supervising use of poison gas against Jews and other riff-raff who fell afoul of the Nazis and their diverse eugenic enterprises. Rachel, being unable to intellectualize or otherwise rationalize Hans' behavior, subsequent flight from justice and burial of responsibilities, begins a journey of self-realization and self-immolation, one which culminates in suicide and which reenacts the extermination routine used in the camps. His diary falls into the hands of the police (the politically correct but astute "Com'Dad") who turns it over to the slacker younger son, Malrich for didactic purposes. Malrich recognizes the linkage between the totalitarian tendencies of the Islamist movement operating in his "estate" (a French banlieu) and Nazism and makes discursive efforts to intervene. Whether he eventually undertakes meaningful acts based on his insights remains unclear.
Of course, the attraction of a novel is in the tale's telling as well as the story, itself. Here, for instance, is Malrich on the local "jihadis": "They looked funny in their old-world suicide-bomber getups, with their martyr's belts, their scruffy beards, their battered faces, their staring eyes, their all-terrain sandals, we liked the way they talked, like Allah's rap crew; the way they were always available, the way they were like superheroes fighting for the poor. There were only about a dozen of them, but there were hordes of us and we were all itching to be their right-hand men. We'd do anything, they only had to ask, they had Allah's ear, he was on their side." And here is Rachel's penultimate diary entry, written just before his suicide: "Chance decides whether one is here or there, protected or exposed, on the is side of the channel or that. I chose nothing, I chose to live a quiet, hardworking life and here I am before a scaffold that was not built for me. I am paying for another's crime. I want to save him, because he is my father, because he is a man." The more philosophically inclined Rachel is heavily indebted to Primo Levy, whose work figures prominently in this book. Malrich's notes, on the other hand, borrow from author Richard Price ("Freedomland", "Clockers", "The Wire", etc). Unlike Price's characters, however, Malrich swiftly arrives at the salient insight of this book, one which echoes an observation made by the great physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, made in another context at a much earlier time, but applicable to modern Islamism, nonetheless: "But perhaps only a malignant end can follow the systematic belief that all communities are one community; that all truth is one truth..."
So, is this a derivative work? Is it unoriginal? The answer to both questions is a qualified, "Yes", but that does not detract from compelling attractions of the book. For an exhaustive critique, I suggest Fouad Ajami's review in "The New Republic" (January 27, 2010 issue) which also provides a comprehensive discussion of "La Sale Guerre", the battle between the Algerian military and their Islamist antagonists, the immediate effect of which (the murder of the elder Schiller and his wife) ignite the story, but whose more wide-ranging implications are only hinted at in this book.
"We look on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us..." wrote J.G. Farrell. However, more often than not, the past serves as a template for current behavior and its myths inform ideology. As Rachel and Malrich discover, its also true that people bury the past in order to repeat it.