5 November 2015

Boualem Sansal: Le Village de l'Allemand, ou Le journal des frères Schiller (2008)

Le Village de l'Allemand, ou Le journal des frères Schiller is the other novel of Boualem Sansal's which has been translated into English, and the same book appears to bear two different titles: the understable The German Mujahid and the oddly titled An Unfinished Business. It is based on a true story that Sansal once heard.

In 24 April 1994 there is an Islamic attack in the very remote Algerian village of Aïn Deb, in which a forty people die, two of them being the mother and father of the Schiller brothers of the sub-title. The brothers are in fact two narrators who take it in turns to tell the story, although one of them – Rachel – is dead and his notes are being used by Malrich, or rather by the lycée teacher Mme Dominique G. H., who was keen to re-write Malrich's efforts in 'good French'.

The brothers' German father Hans married an Algerian woman and spent the rest of his wife in the small Algerian village of Aïn Deb, never leaving it, and where he was very well respected. But he had the foresight to realise that the Algerian-born boys would need a decent education so sent them to live with their uncle Ali and aunt Sakrina in a high-rise housing estate in Nantes, France. Rachel was a successful engineer until circumstances led to his dismissal, and was thirty-three on his death on 24 April 1996. Malrich, on the other hand, is about nineteen and seems on first appearances to be something of a loser, hanging around with other kids and having no burning interests or ambitions.

Then Rachel is found dead in his garage, and the police chief later hands Rachel's diaries to Malrich, saying that it's in his interests to read them. Malrich devours them, as in them he discovers not only the reason for his brother's suicide but the devastating truth behind his father's seclusion in Aïn Deb. The novel alternates between Rachel's diary and Malrich's thoughts on it, or his account of his activities with his friends.

Rachel's detective work soon reveals the terrifying truth about his father. At first he can't understand why he has been registered and buried with a false name, and his mother under her maiden name. To find out, it takes a hazardous journey back to Algeria, back to his village, to the old house, and papers that reveal that Hans Schiller was a prominent Nazi, who – though the production of the lethal chemical Zyklon B – was indirectly responsible for the deaths of many thousands of innocent people in the death camps of Germany, Austria and Poland.

Rachel becomes obsessed, reads large numbers of books about the systematic destruction of the Jews, visits places his father went, such as his univeristy, the extermination camps, tries to track down his old Nazi friends. Quickly, his obsession and his closeness to insanity lose him his job, his wife, and in the end his life. There are no digressions as such here, only a long and very painful account of the practical and psychological logistics of gassing the equivalent of a villageful of people to death every day in the Nazi slaughter chambers. Rachel choses not only the same day and exact time to die as his father, but the same method: death by gas.

What has this to do with Boualem Sansal's usual attacks on Islamism? Quite a lot, according to Sansal. Malrich is of course a great deal younger than his brother, although old enough to understand, old enough to read and re-read his brother's writings, to read the books he's left, to teach his Muslim friends about the Nazi atrocities they are obviously too young to know about. Plus there's an inevitable analogy to be made between Nazism and Islamist extremism: forty people in Aïn Deb have had their throats slit, and much closer to home the emir, on the instructions of the imam, has strung up young Nadia, bound her naked and used a blow torch on her. Malrich and his moderate friends are ordinary Muslims, a little westernised around the edges naturally, they represent the voice of sanity in a mad, threatening world, and they very strongly condemn this barbarity. A tremendous, harrowing read.

My other posts on Boualem Sansal:

Boualem Sansal: 2084 : La fin du monde
Boualem Sansal: Rue Darwin
Boualem Sansal: Harraga
Boualem Sansal: Dis-moi le paradis
Boualem Sansal: L'Enfant fou de l'arbre creux
Boualem Sansal: Le Serment des barbares

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