Boyd Tonkin

Algeria’s War of Independence still leaves festering wounds, two new novels reveal

Alice Zeniter and Joseph Andras are the latest writers to examine the effect of the bitter conflict on participants and subsequent generations

French soldiers arrest Algerian civilians during Operation Bigeard, launched to counter FLN strongholds in March 1956. Credit: Getty Images

In France, even the car horns yelled about Algeria. A five-beat klaxon blast — three short, two long — signalled Al-gé-rie Fran-çaise. In the early 1990s, I slunk into a rally held by Jean-Marie Le Pen in Nice to find that for the ranks of cropped, thickset pieds noirs in leather jackets, the bloodbaths and betrayals three decades back in Oran, Constantine or Algiers drove what they thought and how they voted. A generation later, Algerian migrants or returnees — Arab, Kabyle, European — now have second- and third-generation families. But the atrocity-littered independence war of 1954-62, and its gruesome aftermath, remain festering wounds. France, as President Macron put it in July when he charged the historian Benjamin Stora to report on the conflict’s public memory, still suffers from its badly healed scars.

Stora submitted his report on 20 January. It proposes a ‘Memory and Truth’ commission to mediate between the competing histories that split the millions of French with Algerian affiliations into hostile camps. Well, bon courage with that. Two freshly translated novels, new arrivals on a long shelf of Franco-Algerian fiction, show how tough a task awaits any reconciler of the past’s mangled accounts. Not only, as Alice Zeniter’s heroine Naïma reflects in The Art of Losing, has each community ‘reached an agreement on the version of history that suited them’, but internal rifts fragment them. The Art of Losing centres on the bleak fate of the harkis, Algerians loyal to France, while Joseph Andras’s Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us dramatises the last days of Fernand Iveton. He was the only European Algerian ever guillotined — rather than killed in combat, or under torture — as an independence fighter.

‘Oh yes, I’m up early every morning breaking the ice.’

Both books ask what it means to choose, or to inherit, the wrong side of a cherished collective history.

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