Boualem Sansal, Le village de l’Allemand: ou le journal des frères Schiller (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 264 pp., 2008)
While Americans and their elected officials do everything they can to avoid even the appearance of criticizing Islam or using such words as “Islamist,” the French public seems to suffer from no such inhibitions, at least not in the area of fiction. For example, it has embraced Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal’s Le village de l’Allemand (The Village of the German), a plainspoken masterpiece that boldly uncovers the affinities between Nazism and Islamism. In March, the novel won the RTL-Lire 2008 prize, which is awarded by a jury of 100 readers chosen by 20 bookstores throughout France. One wonders how an American readership might receive such a book.
The German of the title is a former SS officer who serves in a number of extermination camps during World War II. After the war, he is smuggled out of Germany to Istanbul and then Cairo. From there, the Egyptian government dispatches him to Algeria during its war of independence in the 1950s. His job: to support the insurrection by training Front de Libération Nationale fighters. He subsequently settles down in a remote village, where he soon becomes the highly respected sheikh.
Sansal slowly reveals the German’s story through the eyes of his two sons. Half German and half Algerian, they are sent as boys to live in France. Their discoveries begin when the elder brother, Rachel (an amalgamation of “Rachid” and “Helmut”), returns to his native village in the mid-1990s after terrorists murder his parents. Clues among the dead sheikh’s possessions lead Rachel on an increasingly agonizing search to reconstruct his father’s life in places like Auschwitz. Devastated by what he learns about the Holocaust, the son commits suicide to atone for his father’s sins.
The second son, Malrich (from “Malek” and “Ulrich”), is a creature of the banlieues, French suburbs that have become violent Muslim ghettos. His common sense has already helped him reject an attempt by the local Islamist imam to recruit him, but he continues to drift along with little hope for the future, among friends with similarly bleak prospects. Malrich learns about his father by reading the diary that Rachel has left behind. His reaction is to fight back—not against the Nazis, who are in any case long dead, but against the Islamists, whom he sees as essentially of the same ilk.
Malrich realizes that the Islamists are immeasurably more determined, stronger, and better organized than he and his little band of friends. The Islamists also have the implicit support of the French authorities, who are primarily concerned with keeping things quiet. The only weapon available is the power of the word: Malrich is determined to warn others of the danger, regardless of the risks he faces. His final interview with the local imam is heavy with threats.
The novel is rooted in reality. During his travels in Algeria, Sansal came across an actual village de l’allemand by accident. He then researched the headman’s story, learning along the way that it wasn’t unusual. An estimated 2,000 former Nazis settled in Egypt after World War II. They included Johannes von Leers, formerly Goebbels’s favorite propagandist of annihilation, who under Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser was responsible for anti-Jewish propaganda. Other former Nazis organized police forces or, like Sansal’s headman, served as military trainers.
The sons’ ignorance of the Holocaust is similarly based on sad truths of history. Sansal, in an interview with the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur, stresses that the Holocaust is never mentioned in Algeria: “The fact is that never, until today, has Algerian television shown a film or a documentary on the subject, never has an official breathed a word about it nor, as far as I know, has an intellectual written on the theme.” Though Rachel and Malrich grow up in France, not Algeria, their knowledge of the Holocaust is also rudimentary. And indeed, with growing resistance among Muslim schoolchildren to any history lessons about the Holocaust, the level of knowledge in many French schools may soon resemble that of their Algerian counterparts.
The intertwining of the hatred that once led to extermination of the Jews and the potential of radical Islam is the book’s deliberate theme. According to Sansal, “the border between Islamism and Nazism is very slim.” Or as Malrich comments: “When I see what the Islamists do here and elsewhere, I tell myself that they will exceed the Nazis if one day they come to power.” In Malrich’s eyes, the Islamists are already taking over the Muslim banlieues, running them like concentration camps. The inhabitants do not know how to react. “We are like the deportees back then,” Malrich reflects. “Caught up in the machinery, rendered immobile by fear, fascinated by evil, we wait with secret hope that docility will save us.”
If Malrich’s strategic position is weak, Le village de l’Allemand argues that all young Algerians are in a hopeless situation. It is not just a problem of radical Islam. The Islamic governments in power in Algeria and elsewhere, Sansal suggests, have much in common with Nazism, starting with the police states they operate. In his magazine interview, Sansal says that Algeria’s own children consider it an “open-air prison” or a “concentration camp.” Algerian youth, he says, have a slogan: “Mourir ailleurs plutôt que vivre ici” (“Die elsewhere rather than live here”). In his view, Islam has already suffered heavy blows from both Islamism and Arab nationalism, blows from which it will be extremely difficult to recover.
Le village de l’Allemand, while well-paced and accessible, occasionally suffers from the author’s urgency to get his message across. What Malrich reads and experiences isn’t necessarily enough to persuade him that Islamism and Nazism are two sides of the same coin; Sansal may expect his readers to fill in the blanks. Nor is it clear why the father, a chemical engineer whose job during the war was to solve problems related to gassing large numbers of people, would subsequently become a military trainer of Algerian insurgents.
But these flaws are minor when compared with the book’s uncompromising honesty and Sansal’s ability to connect the dots in new ways, to break down psychological barriers, and to communicate his urgency and passion. He refuses to look the other way, whether describing the past or the present. While his themes are discouraging, his lucidity and underlying faith in human dignity are inspiring. His caliber of mind and character, as well as his message, probably explain his resonance among the French public. Perhaps Malrich’s ambition to combat radical Islam by telling the truth about it is not so far-fetched after all.