26 Oct / The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal, translated by Frank Wynne
Prominently noted on the cover as “The first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust” and banned in the author’s native Algeria, The German Mujahid is also based on a true story, making it an even more disturbing, striking read. To add to its authenticity, the novel begins with a thank-you preface to a helpful teacher “… who was kind enough to rewrite my book in good French,” signed by one of the book’s two main characters. Regretfully, perhaps because translator Wynne seems to try too hard to render the French original into street-savvy British English which ultimately doesn’t ring true, ‘good English’ cannot be said of this otherwise powerful story.
The novel opens with the suicide of Rachid Helmut Schiller, shortened to Rachel, a half Algerian, half German 33-year-old ex-corporate executive who could not live with the legacy of inherited guilt. Before the two years that led to his death, he lived a near-perfect life, earning himself out of the ghetto with a determined education, sharing a large home outside Paris with his childhood sweetheart. His still teenaged brother, Malek Ulrich, better known as Malrich, who runs with a rougher crowd, who knows the local police too well because of his many law-defying pranks, is left with Rachel’s diary … and writes his own in an attempt to figure out what happened and why.
Exactly two years before Rachel’s suicide, the boys’ parents were slaughtered by Islamic fundamentalists who attacked their remote Algerian village, part of the widespread Algerian massacres of the 1990s. Sent as young children to be raised by an elderly couple in a fierce project outside Paris, both boys were kept distanced from their father’s past. Only after their parents’ murders does Rachel find out about their father’s past as a high-ranking Nazi S.S. officer.
The father that both boys knew was a devout convert to Islam and a much revered village chief. To try and understand who his father was before his birth, Rachel methodically reconstructs a legacy of terror, genocide, and incomprehensible guilt: “… maybe this man is not a man, nor even the shadow of a man,” Rachel writes in his diary, “perhaps he is the devil incarnate. My God, who will tell me who my father is?” As if replacing his father’s silence, Rachel feverishly gathers the books, testimonies, and memories of others who might help him understand, finding fleeting comfort in the words of Holocaust survivors, especially Primo Levi whose words are woven throughout the text: “I didn’t find a single word of hatred, the hint of a desire for revenge, the least expression of anger,” he observes. His own anger and hate overwhelm him: “I have to take it upon myself. I have to pay for you, papa.”
Malrich realizes Rachel has also paid for his survival: “he killed himself slowly … he wanted to atone, he wanted to get gassed to death like papa’s victims, like it was papa who was gassing him …This was the price he wanted to pay in papa’s place … to relieve me of the burden of our debt.” Meanwhile, Malrich is fighting a zealous religious war of his own as Islamic fundamentalists take over his housing project. Sansal draws a clear parallel between the father’s and sons’ lives, between the Nazism of decades past and the growing threat of today’s fundamental Islamists. History repeats itself far too often, and the fine line between oppressor and oppressed continually blurs. In the latest generation, one son loses, but hopefully the younger son will fight the injustice and survive.
Published: 2009 (United States)