By Emma Garman
It's common knowledge that, at the end of WWII, many German war criminals fled from justice via "ratlines" to South American countries. Less notorious, though, are the Nazis who, like the title character of Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal's excoriating new novel, The German Mujahid, found permanent refuge in Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria and Algeria. Inspired by a visit to a European-style Algerian village whose mayor was a former SS officer, and by what he views as the Arab world's "erasure" of the Holocaust, Sansal has written a bracingly unsentimental, ingeniously structured story that not only lays bare past collusions between German fascists and Arab governments, but draws explicit parallels between Nazism and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, all the while grappling with the emotive question: "are we responsible for the crimes of our fathers, of our brothers, of our children?"
The German Mujahid is narrated by Malrich, a disaffected, thuggish teenager who lives on a deprived Arab housing project outside of Paris in the mid-1990s. After being expelled from school, he'd been passing the time all too typically for a kid of his background: "I hung around the streets, took a couple of courses and a few part time jobs, did a bit of dealing, went to the mosque, wound up in court." But when Malrich is seventeen, his educated and professional 33-year-old brother Rachel commits suicide and leaves behind his diaries, which turn Malrich's world upside down. He discovers that their parents, who had sent the boys from Algeria to live in Paris as children, were massacred by Islamists in their village, Aïn Deb, two years earlier during Algeria's "dirty war," and that when Rachel returned home to visit their graves, he unearthed a secret even more horrifying than the manner of that brutal death. The contents of a suitcase in the family home—medals, military records, and souvenirs—revealed unequivocally that Rachel and Malrich's German father, Hans Schiller, was a highly-decorated SS officer personally responsible for the extermination of thousands of Jews at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Malrich's own diary with its pitch-perfect voice—streetsmart, bemused, loyal and lovable—is interspersed with excerpts from his brother's diary, whose entries are at first measured and reflective, but become increasingly traumatized and desperate as Rachel is eaten up by guilt, rage and an obsessive need to absorb every last detail of the agonies experienced by prisoners in the camps. Retracing the steps of his father's ghastly career, Rachel "travels back through time," to Germany, Austria, Poland, Turkey, and Egypt. It is while at Auschwitz and Birkenau that he decides he will kill himself, "for my father, for his victims, I will pay in full."
As Malrich attempts to somehow come to terms with what has happened to him and learn about the Holocaust—which, he admits, "he didn't know anything about…I'd heard bits and pieces, things the imam said about the Jews and other stuff I'd picked up here and there"—he resolves that "where my father and Rachel had failed, I had to survive." But both brothers' lives are inescapably determined by their father's actions. Rachel literally turns himself into a concentration camp victim, growing more emaciated and haunted until, head shaved and wearing striped pyjamas, he gasses himself on the anniversary of his father's death, "the day Hans Schiller finally eluded the justice of men." Malrich, on the other hand, directs his shame outward to save his beloved "Sensitive Urban Area, Category 1" housing project, which has slowly but surely been taken over by Islamists who are creating "a concentration camp," with an atmosphere of "all conquering Islam." Telling his friends that "we're going to live, we're going to fight," Malrich considers it his legacy and his duty to first declare war on the "Nazi jihadist fuckers," and then to "tell the truth, all over the world."
Sansal's own compulsion to tell the truth all over the world is hampered, sadly, by the reality that although The German Mujahid has won plaudits in France including the RTL-Lire Prize, has been translated into German and Hebrew, and is being published in separate American and British editions, not only are there no plans to translate it into Arabic, but Sansal's work is banned in Algeria. The author, who refers to himself as "secular in every bone in my body," had published several novels that sold well in his home country, having turned to writing after retiring from his job as Director of the Algerian Ministry for Industry. But with the publication in 2006 of Poste restante: Alger. Lettre de colere et d'espoir a mes compatriots—an open letter to his fellow citizens decrying the Nationalist-Islamist regime, which he says is teaching young Algerians an edited version of history—all of his books were removed from shelves.
Such censorship is particularly ironic given Sansal's mission as an artist. In writing The German Mujahid he wanted, he says, "to ask what it might mean to take responsibility for ensuring that such crimes are never repeated," and the answer the novel gives is clear: it means heeding Primo Levi's insistence to "Remember these words…Repeat them to your children." In its unflinching exploration of the horrors of history and its clear-eyed journey across the entire spectrum of humanity from good to evil, The German Mujahid mesmerizes from the very first sentence and commands you not to evade or recoil. Even the comfort of a hopeful conclusion is resisted; the closest thing to a consolation offered to the reader is the knowledge that Malrich will, as he promises, survive, and some day do what Rachel had wanted to: visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem: "I'll read the names aloud, and, after every one, I'll ask their forgiveness in my father's name." Yet although reaching the end will leave you drained, devastated, and reeling, you'll still want to go back to the first page and start again. Sansal is a novelist at the absolute height of his powers and has, in raking over such ugliness, created a work of extraordinary beauty.
Published Sep 30, 2009 Copyright 2009 Emma Garman