Joseph Andras’s 'De Nos Frères Blessés' and Kamel Daoud’s 'The Meursault Investigation' are both set in Algeria.
When French author Joseph Andras’s De Nos Frères Blessés won his country’s prestigious Prix Goncourt for a first novel in 2016, he turned down the prize. Thanking the Académie Goncourt, he said that he did not want to sound arrogant or boastful but his belief was that competition and rivalry were notions foreign to writing. Literature walks at a distance from podiums, honours and the spotlight, he added. The novel, an examination of colonial violence in Algeria, was also successfully adapted for stage and film.
The previous year, the Goncourt first novel prize had been awarded to another novel set in Algeria. This was The Meursault Investigation by Algerian writer Kamel Daoud, which reworked Albert Camus’s The Stranger. It viewed events from the point of view of Harun, brother of the nameless Arab who was killed in Camus’s novel.
Andras’s book is now available in an English translation by Simon Leser, with the arresting title Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us. And Daoud’s second novel, Zabor, Or the Psalms, has also just been translated into English by Emma Ramadan. Taken together, they provide striking and contrasting ways of looking at colonial consequences, with implications that are universal.
Where The Meursault Investigation used a single novel as a springboard, Daoud’s Zabor relies on many works, notably Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and the One Thousand and One Nights. It’s set in an Algerian village in which the titular character has Scheherazade-like powers of prolonging life. As he tells us on the first page: “Writing is the only effective ruse against death.”
The young Zabor – Arabic for “psalm” – comes to realise that he can keep elderly people alive by writing obsessively in his notebooks. The novel starts with him being summoned to his father’s deathbed, and then spirals outwards: he delves into his love for an acquired language, his relationships with his aunt and stepbrother, budding sexuality and incipient romance.
Daoud’s prose style is rapturous in praising the powers of language. Such outpouring, sometimes insightful and often repetitive, can overpower character and events. For example, when recreating and inventing the dialogues of Amitabh Bachchan films for his Bollywood-loving aunt, he discovers “the rift between the word and its meaning, the arbitrariness of sound that reduced language to an attempt, not an essence.” Borges-like, he goes on to title his notebooks The Lord of the Rings, To the Lighthouse, and The Grapes of Wrath, among others.
In the past, Daoud has spoken frankly if contentiously about what he feels are the shortcomings of Islamic societies, as well as the continuing sense of victimhood in colonised countries. There are echoes of this ideological slant in Zabor. A knowledge of French leads to a more potent understanding of the world, for instance, and there are also critiques of religion and attitudes towards sexuality.
It is much more than a simple allegory, though. Zabor’s art is derived from a book of influential non-Western stories, even as he imagines himself to be “the Arab Robinson Crusoe of an island with no language, master of the parrot and of the word”. Further, though Daoud doesn’t mention it, Defoe’s novel itself had a forerunner in a 12th century tale by al-Andalus philosopher Ibn Tufayl.
The central figure in Joseph Andras’s Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us also finds succour in a book: awaiting trial in a prison cell, he is inspired by Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. In style and ambition, Andras’s novel is very unlike Daoud’s. It deals with the real-life story of Fernand Iveton, the only pied-noir – that is, a person of French or other European origin born in Algeria – to have been executed by the French state during the Algerian War.
In crisp, no-nonsense prose, Andras narrates Iveton’s saga. He was arrested for planting a bomb in a factory, then mercilessly tortured for information about another explosive device. A military court subsequently sentenced him to death. The novel also investigates his past, specifically his wooing of and life with his wife, Helene.
Andras ingeniously cross-cuts between Iveton’s predicament, Helene’s actions, and the reactions of his co-conspirators. Iveton is portrayed as one with noble intentions. Originally an activist in the Algerian Communist Party, he tells Helene: “we must get rid of this system, clear Algeria of these kinglets and create a new regime with a popular base, made up of Arab and European workers together, humble people, the small and the unassuming of every race united to defeat the crooks who oppress us and hold us to ransom.”
Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is moving, as well as revealing of the mechanics of an occupying state. In an author’s note at the end of the book, Andras writes of the case’s repercussions. Sartre published a piece entitled ‘We Are All Murderers’ in Les Temps Modernes; Camus intervened to try to save Iveton; and some claim that when Mitterrand moved to abolish the death penalty in 1981, it was to “redeem” himself for decisions during the Algerian War, including Iveton’s execution.
If Daoud’s Zabor
is an ode to the powers of language and re-creation, Andras’s Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us
is a modern J’Accuse
that puts the state in the dock. The former complicates legacies, while the latter is condemnatory and heartfelt. Together, they bookend attitudes towards how colonialism alters ways of thinking to serve its own ends.