“We came to the crossroads where he was to leave us, as we got of the cart, he turned to us, raising his finger like a grandfather giving his grandchildren a lesson: ‘Listen to me and always keep in mind what I am telling you today. France has three enemies – the English, the Bolsheviks and the Jews! Don’t ever forget it!’ As the carriage drove away in a cloud of dust, Alfred let out the laugh that he had been holding back. ‘If only this idiot had known,’ he said, ‘that he had in you his three enemies sitting right beside him in his wagon.”
Like many others, I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in college, and was horrified – yet strangely fascinated – by his prescription for pure, cleansing, anti-colonial violence. Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs describes the crucible in which Fanon was shaped, and in its own way, a journalistic, dispassionate way, helps to make sense of the polemics in The Wretched of the Earth.
Henri Alleg himself was born in France, but went to Algeria in 1939 as an eighteen-year old, and was involved with the Algerian independence movement thereafter. Joining the Communist Party of Algeria, he also founded – and ran – the Alger Republicain, described by him in the Memoirs as the only newspaper at the time that opnely advocated anti-colonial policies. Alleg was eventually arrested, and tortured by the French authorities, and his description of his torture in a tract called La Question caused a storm in France, was censored, and is credited with significantly accelerating the freedom movement. This, in itself, would have made for a full life, but the Algerian Memoirs recounts more than that: beginning with the early years, the onset of World War II, the determination of France to hold on to Algeria after the end of the War, the massacres, the increasingly violent freedom movement, Alleg’s own conviction and imprisonment, his eventual escape from a prison in France, independence and how quickly it soured, and eventual exile again. By any account, we would have to live three or four lives to begin to approach the fullness of Alleg’s!
The consistent theme that emerges out of the book is the brutality and racism of French colonialism. It is a particularly salutary time to be reminded of it. Over the last year, French culture, and the French way of life, have been rightly held up as ideals to strive for, and to protect and defend. But a book like Alleg’s reminds us that the same culture that produced Voltaire habitually tortured anti-colonialists through “the use of sticks and bottles shoved up the anus“; the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man belonged to the same society that massacred thousands of civilians demanding independence at the very time the Nazis were defeated in Europe; and that the principles that defined the French nation were never applied to the Algerians, until independence was seized by force of arms. These are well-worn points; but in light of French legislation that expressly required schools to recognise the “positive role” played by French colonialism in North Africa, and the present discourse which seems to deny the constitutive role played by colonialism in both the material and cultural shaping of Europe, memoirs like Alleg’s – once again – are a reminder that we cannot pick and choose our histories.
This is not to say that Alleg’s work is free of its own biases. As a card-carrying communist, he goes to extreme lengths to defend the French Communist Party’s quietism – and in fact, opposition – to Algerian independence. For Alleg, the Communist Party has been misunderstood, its pragmatism mistaken for an indefensible commitment to the continuation of colonialism. History – I think correctly – has not been so charitable.
That blind spot apart, Alleg is a compelling and reliable guide. The journalist’s eye for detail is complemented by – in the tradition of C.L.R. James – an absence of any faux pretences to neutrality. Alleg is anti-colonialist and a leftist, and never bothers to hide the fact that his world-view and assessment is shaped by those ideological forces. And over and above that, he has a sharp sense of humour, one that has not been dulled by decades of repression and censorship. He recalls an event, for instance, when:
“One night, an over-hasty police superintendent exhibited a seizure notice signed by the Prefect of Algiers for an issue that neither he nor his superiors could have read since it was yet to be printed. Despite the grotesque insistence of the police, looking for material proof of the non-existent offence, the staff categorically refused to print a newspaper that was condemned in advance to be seized.”
Asides like these – humorous, but darkly so – are scattered throughout that book, lightening it – and the readers – of some of the burdens that such accounts must inevitably inflict. It’s a burden which, one feels, Alleg needs to get off his own shoulders, by forcing himself to remember the funny side of things:
“One of my friends, Antoine Reynaud, who held a high position in the administration of the post office before his arrest, was talking with an FLN militant from Dra El Mizan in Kabylie. ‘I know it well,’ said Reynaud, ‘I supervised the installation of telegraph poles from Dra El Mizan to Boghni and beyond.’ ‘Oh! You’re the one who installed them. Nice to meet you! I’m the one who cut the connections after 1 November.’”
And who could grudge him that. In a life spent working on a magazine while having “to take refuge in the bathroom, the only relatively safe space, and take the copy to the shop on the other side of the avenue, which was intermittently sprayed by machine-gun fire”; while having to play a constant game of language with the censors, because “using the term ‘patriots’ and ‘moudjahidine’ to describe those who had taken up weapons was obviously prohibited. Since we refused to call them ‘rebels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘fellagha’ – the vocabulary of the newspapers – we were reduced to speaking of action conducted throughout the country by mysterious ‘armed men’. But the readers were not fooled. It was also forbidden to mention the fighting in Tunisia and problems related to the political situation of the country. The same was true for Morocco. Ultimately, we had to give up our effort to cover Tunisia and Morocco when our special correspondents were expelled from both countries”; and of course, a life spent living in a country where the colonisers “complained of the noise they had to endure living near a police station. The screams kept them up at night“: one would take one’s humour where one finds it.
It is almost trite now to quote Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Alleg is a historian of the lions. An imperfect one, but there are few, probably, who have greater authority to recount the history of the hunt.