wed 21/04/2021

Joseph Andras: Tomorrow They Won't Dare to Murder Us review - injustice and tenderness in the Algerian War | reviews, news & interviews

Joseph Andras: Tomorrow They Won't Dare to Murder Us review - injustice and tenderness in the Algerian War

Joseph Andras: Tomorrow They Won't Dare to Murder Us review - injustice and tenderness in the Algerian War

This thriller-ish debut revives the only European executed in the French-Algerian conflict

Joseph Andras, winner of Prix Goncourt prize for first novel

Joseph Andras wastes no time. “Not a proud and forthright rain, no. A stingy rain. Mean. Playing dirty.” This is how his debut novel kicks off, and it’s a fitting start for his retelling of the arrest, torture, one-day trial and subsequent execution of Fernand Iveton, the only Algerian-born European (or “pied-noir”) to have been subject to the death penalty during the conflict.

Joseph Andras wastes no time. “Not a proud and forthright rain, no. A stingy rain. Mean. Playing dirty.” This is how his debut novel kicks off, and it’s a fitting start for his retelling of the arrest, torture, one-day trial and subsequent execution of Fernand Iveton, the only Algerian-born European (or “pied-noir”) to have been subject to the death penalty during the conflict. It remains one of the most ignominious episodes of the Algerian War of Independence. Ignominious but largely forgotten. 

Iveton’s case received attention from the likes of Simone Beauvoir, Sartre and Camus, a “pied-noir” himself who, apparently, attempted to intervene while the FLN (National Liberation Front) activist was briefly on death row. By then it was too late. French anti-Algerian and anti-communist sentiment, from the both the state and the press, was too strong. The then-minister of justice François Mitterrand ensured that the thirty-year old Iveton suffered the guillotine, on February 11, 1957. Coming to power as president in 1981, Mitterrand would immediately set about abolishing the death penalty, many suspect, out of guilt.

Andras brings the story back to life with painful immediacy and palpable urgency. Iveton is the one waiting in that driving rain for the delivery of a bomb, a bomb he would place in the factory he works in on the edge of Algiers, in an unattended corner and after hours precisely so it would not injure anyone. Iveton does not want to pile up bodies but to build up the “Algeria of tomorrow”, one invested in “recognising all of its children, wherever they’re from, him or his parents and grandparents, doesn’t matter, Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Italians Spaniards, Maltese, French, Germans…” as befits his communist ideals. But the authorities, who have been watching him closely, are not interested in good intentions but bad examples. They arrest him before the bomb (which in fact fails to go off) is due to explode and submit him to a torture that goes beyond words. “Our alphabet is too decorous. Horror can’t but give up before its twenty-six little characters.”

Half of this novel seems to be shot through with torture, the aspect of the war which did the most to upend notions of the “France of the Republic, Voltaire, Hugo, Clemenceau, the France of human rights, of Human Rights…”. This is not to say that this book is a solid slab of revolutionary anti-colonial propaganda (although you get the feeling, in Andras’s hands, it would be equally readable). It is honest about the everyday violence inflicted by both sides - the “flames and gunfire ridding the country’s skin” - yet clear on the particular injustice of this tale. Once Iveton finds himself in prison the book’s circle widens. He receives visits from sympathetic and dedicated lawyers, who bid tirelessly for his pardon, petitioning the French president René Coty himself. There is also a steady rotation of (invariably Arab) convicts who view him as a martyr in the making. 

The other half of the novel is more tender; every other chapter traces Iveton’s relationship with Hélène, a waitress he meets while recovering from a bout of tuberculosis in Paris before and his future wife. The inner life is on full display in these chapters, both the characters’ and, you sense, the novelist’s own. Andras plants himself firmly behind Iveton’s eyes as he admires Hélène’s beauty which does, indeed, look like it could launch a thousand ships. “The circle of her right cheek is fringed by lamplight. Rosette, silken scoop.” You can tell he enjoys charting Iveton’s head-over-heels fall. As they lunch with Helene’s sister and teenage son from a previous relationship, he thinks to himself, “She is not just a woman here, but a daughter, a mother, a sister; no longer a beautiful atom fallen from the sky, her roots are revealed. Fernand now knows that he will have to love her with others. Love her with those whom she herself loves.” Politics is never too far from the surface in those scenes either - Héléne shares stories of her role in the Resistance on their first date - but its emergence never feels forced or disruptive, or at least no more so or sooner than it was in their real lives.

One slightly more disturbing aspect of Andras’s writing are his natural descriptions which seem carefully deployed as an antidote to sentimentality. The sky is a “gray broth with floating lumps of wearied stars”. Elsewhere, “Paris crumbles under a thick drapery sky.” When Iveton catches himself weeping, it is seen as “only tears, carving his cheeks as in the distance the night carves the roofs of Algiers.” These lines crop up here and there like purposively cultivated weeds, but they are minor blemishes on what comes across as a radical act of empathy. And a perfectly timed act. In a two-page potted history at the back, Andras quotes from Algerian historian Benjamin Stora who was commissioned last year by President Macron, as part of a French-Algerian “memories and truth” project, to put together a report on the period of Algerian colonisation. The report will be published as a book next month. It is not a novel but, if his motivation is to tell the fullest story possible, let’s hope Stora has taken Andras’s lead.

@_danieljlewis

Andras brings Fernand Iveton's story back to life with painful immediacy and palpable urgency.

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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