The opening scene features a man in a street, hypersensitive to his surroundings. He is waiting to place a bomb in a storeroom of the factory where he works in Algiers. Insufferable drips of rain refuse to build into a downpour. The man is Fernand Iveton, and the year is 1956.
The car he is waiting for finally arrives, and Fernand is given a bomb in a shoebox with a timer set to the agreed time, all of which he carefully places in a sports bag. He has been returning from his breaks with the bag slung over his shoulder for a few consecutive days, to accustom the foreman and security guards to his behavior.
Fernand successfully places the bomb in the disused storeroom – selected to ensure no one would die in the blast – and returns to his work-station. A group of cops descend on him almost immediately. The factory foreman smirks in the background. If not the snitch himself, he’s at least a happy beneficiary. Fernand is thrown into a van and taken to Algiers central police station. On the way, it’s made clear what awaits him on arrival:
We know who you are, Iveton, we’ve got files on you, you communist fuck, you won’t be so high and mighty anymore with your little kisser, Iveton, your little Arab mustache, you’ll see, we’re going to make you talk at the station, you better believe it, we’re talented we are, we always get our way, and believe me we’re going to do whatever the fuck we want with your piece of shit communist mouth, we could force a mute to belt out an opera.
Torture as biological debasement, as the animalization of the victim, ensues unrelentingly over several pages. He is kicked and punched. Stripped naked. His limbs are bound. He is blindfolded. Electrodes are placed on his neck; later, on his testicles. Then the rest of his body. He is burned all over with electric currents, as one officer operates the generator, and others manipulate his limbs. He is placed on a bench. No longer able to control his muscles, his head hangs backwards, suspended in the air. A cloth is placed over his face. Water is made to flow and flow, swelling his stomach and suffocating his lungs. He loses consciousness and is slapped awake. He is reduced to his body, which he fears will ultimately be unfaithful. “Fernand shivers. He is ashamed of how little control he has over his body. His own body, which could betray, abandon, sell him to the enemy.” His singular aim is to hang on at least long enough for his comrades to hide, before inevitably giving his tormentors a couple of names, once his body fails, and nothing matters except an end to the pain.
Glimpses of the wider scenario are introduced in pockets. Algiers is in a heightened state of agitation. The Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), commencing their war of liberation in 1954, have escalated attacks – a couple of months earlier the Milk Bar and La Cafétéria were bombed to ruins, and just two days prior to Fernand’s interrupted attempt at the factory, explosions rocked a tram station, a supermarket, a bus, a train, and two cafés. The French security apparatus has its military vehicles crawling the streets, but the language of colonial order refuses the notion that a war has started; instead, it is merely a series of events. Later, counter-insurgency rages in the backcountry, but “still no war, no, no that. Power minds its language – its fatigues tailored from satin, its butchery smothered by propriety.”
Joseph Andras’s Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a compact, fictionalized account of events leading up to the guillotining of Fernand Iveton on February 11, 1957 – the only beheading of a “European” by the French state during the Algerian War. Chapter by chapter, the novel shifts between two parallel tracks and temporalities until their late merger in the closing passages.
The first narrative line, punctuated with sharp sentences and a palpable sense of acceleration, charts the arc of Iveton’s experience from the suspended factory bombing of November 1956 to his death at the hands of colonial administrators.
A second thread, languid in pacing, and more capacious in the structure of its prose, begins further back in time, crossing between Algiers and the French village of Annet, and back again, then from the Algerian countryside to Paris. It contains the love story of Fernand – born and raised in Algeria, to a French father who was a member of the Algerian Communist Party, and a Spanish mother who died when he was two – and Hélène – born in a Polish village to a poor father who played the violin, and a wealthy mother who turned her back on her class. The family migrated to France and became agricultural labourers.
By day, Hélène works in a tannery in the village of Langy, and by night, in Café Bleu in Annet, making appetizers and desserts. She meets Fernand in the café, which is nearby to the family pension where he is riding out a tubercular convalescence. If in the claustrophobic prison cells and torture chambers Fernand’s body is broken down and alienated from his mastery through the crude tools of colonial machinery, the story of early love is marked by a slower pace of quotidian human experience, including a different sort of corporeal abandon, this time ecstatic, libidinal. Take, for instance, Fernand and Hélène’s first sexual encounter – “moist tangle of tongues,” “braid of legs on the rough cotton” – when Fernand shakes to the point of trembling, and “doubts the reality of what he is currently experiencing.”
Brisk empiricism in the first storyline bridges later to extended, dialogical scenes pivoting on Fernand’s prison comradeship with his Arab cellmates. Lethargic, early passages of the second, meanwhile, gradually assimilate a sense of urgency as the novel progresses, and as the locales shift from France to Algeria. The gravity of Fernand’s death sentence sets more firmly into reality.
In equal measure an accounting of the enormous objective forces unfolding a colonial nightmare across the Mediterranean from France, and a portrayal of the depths of characters’ intimate subjectivities – themselves imbricated with and mediating the parts of that social whole – Andras’s novel reaches for imaginative inner connections and syntheses across scale and time. He is no stranger to sociological contradiction, nor to psychological complexity. His fiction never reduces to a merely didactic idiom. At the same time, Andras circumnavigates, and at a wide berth, the varied formulae of literary liberal-humanism, whether it be the sentimental humanitarian mode, or, alternatively, the mode of moral pragmaticism and apoliticism attached to certain expressions of ironical cynicism. (“Irony can be a numbing response to political and cultural malaise,” Christian Lorentzen points out in a provocative survey of American literature in the latest Bookforum, “but it can also be a form of defiance born of rage and pain.” I refer here to the first of his two ironic sensibilities). The anti-colonial alignment of the novel is unadulterated.
Algeria was submitted to French authority in 1830 and governed as a part of France from 1848, with over a million Europeans, of French citizenship, settling permanently in the territory. Writing recently in the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz reflects on the legacy of the 1.5 million conscripts, or appelés, who were sent to Algeria to quell the movement for national liberation between 1954 and Algeria’s eventual independence in 1962. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians and approximately 24,000 French soldiers died in the interregnum. Shatz’s pivot is historian Raphaëlle Branche’s recent book, Papa, qu’as-tu fait en Algérie? Enquête sur un silence familial, one of a series of revisionist historical works since the late 1990s that have helped to undermine the official and unofficial silences of the French state and dominant society vis-à-vis the Algerian War. It was only in 1999 that the French state acknowledged it had fought a war in Algeria, Shatz points out, and “another two decades before it admitted to the systematic use of torture.”
Some appelés had left-wing backgrounds. To its lasting shame, the French Communist Party, Shatz notes, “condemned those who refused to go to Algeria: in 1956 it voted in favour of giving the government ‘special powers’ to crush the insurrection, and it instructed conscripted party members to promote communist ideas within the army, and to convert other soldiers to the cause of peace.” Their journals are replete with the shame of having participated in systematic murder, torture, rape, and humiliation. One such conscript, Paul de Bessounet, “who grew up in a part of the Haute-Loire where the Resistance had suffered heavy losses, told Branche that he felt as if ‘we were the invaders like the German army in France in 1940, the SS. So the rebels, the fells, were the maquisards’.”
Much of Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is a meditation on colonial relations. Fernand grew up in an Arab Muslim neighbourhood, with few Europeans. “Everyone lived together,” he explains at one point, “the Arab market, the Moorish bath, Europeans and Jews, doors open during the night, women in white veils, you’ve probably seen them on postcards, I guess, marriages and circumcisions where the whole neighbourhood was invited, yes, it was all pretty good, and it still is, by the way.” Fernand repeatedly insists that he is Algerian, not French. A soldier standing next to him at trial agrees, telling Fernand that, “out there, every European in Algeria wants him skinned alive. There are pictures of your mug all over Algiers. A traitor, a felon, a white man sold to the fucking Arabs.”
Shortly after they meet, Hélène takes Fernand to Paris where he requires further medical follow up for his recovery from tuberculosis. They stay at Fernand’s grandfather’s apartment, in the seventeenth arrondissement. His grandfather works as a hotel concierge during the day and in the evening hawks the newspaper France-Soir to passersby in the street. Over a mustard pork roast, Fernand engages in the lengthiest excursus on the Algerian colonial reality anywhere in the novel. He describes how the French authorities in Algeria are ignoring basic Muslim demands for equality: “Going to drive us straight into a wall, believe me, without any turn or anything, nose against brick… what is certain is that the Arabs have been organizing for years to be heard, to win equality for all, between every community at home, in Algeria. But it’s like shouting in the desert. Nothing. Zero.”
Colonialism rests both on hypocrisy and wilful cultivation of delusion. Fernand recites the abolishment of Arab political parties and the silencing of opposition, while “we stand oh so tall, with Culture, Liberty, Civilization, those capital letters, paraded up and down, scrubbed and polished in front of the mirror, the shinier the better.” While France was celebrating its victory over the Germans, Fernand explains, “I don’t know how many Muslims, thousands, more, were being massacred in the country, at Sétif, at Guelma. Those names probably don’t mean a thing to you, they’re about 300 and 500 kilometers from Algiers. Anyway, the stories I’ve been told, I wouldn’t dare repeat them to you, I promise.”
Fernand describes a trinity of French soldiers, settlers, and militia men working “hand in glove, all dancing the same damn jig.” It is not just death they mete out, but humiliation, which “goes deeper, gets under the skin, it plants little seeds of anger and screws up whole generations.” Fernand recounts a story of Arabs being made to kneel before the French flag and proclaim, “We are dogs, Ferhat Abbas is a dog. Abbas is one of their leaders and still, he’s a moderate, wears a tie, doesn’t even demand complete independence, he just wants justice. Even the moderates are met with contempt. A French journalist saw it all, I’m not making it up.”
Shortly after the historical execution of Iveton, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a piece called “Nous sommes tous des assassins,” in Les Temps modernes, commemorating his death. In one of the more lucid passages of his mammoth, corydrane-addled, Critique of Dialectical Reason, Sartre suggests that a central contradiction of “racism, colonialism and all forms of tyranny” is precisely that,
in order to treat a man like a dog, one must first recognise him as a man. The concealed discomfort of the master is that he always has to consider the human reality of his slaves (whether through his reliance on their skill and their synthetic understanding of situations, or through his precautions against the permanent possibility of revolt or escape), while at the same time refusing them economic and political status which, in this period, defines human beings.
Oppression, for Sartre, consists in reducing the Other to animality, but that animality is itself acquired, “only after his humanity has been recognised.” The French made the Algerians proclaim themselves dogs because they first understood their fully human capacity for self-rule. Care had to be taken, therefore, if the Algerians were not to recognize that capacity in themselves. “In fact,” Sartre writes, “the most insulting command must be addressed by one man to another; the master must have faith in man in the person of his slaves.”
Law is another stripped façade in Andras’s novel. Every determination of the legal process is a reflection of the wider balance of social forces, of public opinion in France, and among European settlers in Algeria. That opinion forms, meanwhile, against the dialectic of resistance from the FLN and counter-insurgent terror in the Algerian backcountry. Law’s purpose, in the last instance, is here the practical maintenance, as well as the enduring ideological credibility, of colonial order. There is a blood lust for Fernand’s head, and the law will satiate that appetite. Communists in France are divided among themselves on the Algerian War generally, and Fernand’s actions in particular, circumventing, from the outset, any counter-campaign they might have mounted in his defense. His lawyers occasionally bring him the French communist daily L’Humanité in his cell. The party’s muted solidarity expresses itself nowhere more clearly than the buried coverage of his case in the back pages of the newspaper.
Albert Smadja, a Jewish communist, is Fernand’s court-appointed lawyer. He disapproves of Fernand’s actions, but will defend him on principle, to the best of his ability. That ability, though, is doubtful under the circumstances: “To be perfectly frank with you, Fernand, I was reluctant to work on this case, I’m only a third-year trainee, I doubt I have the stature for it…. The atmosphere Is dreadful in Algiers just now, you know. They all want, precisely, your head.” The perfunctory trial is to be held in military court, presided over by military judges, and with virtually no preparatory time for the defense lawyers.
Fernand is composed and dignified in court, determined to “speak calmly,” “without tempering anything of his commitment or the strength of his convictions.” He admits unhesitatingly to being a communist militant when questioned directly by the judge: “Fernand has raised his head. They look at each other, and he continues, the clerk listening attentively. ‘I took the decision to become one because I think of myself as Algerian, and I am not indifferent to the struggle of the Algerian people’.”
The military judges ignore Fernand’s careful statement that he would never have agreed to a plan intended to kill anyone. They do not pay attention to the basic fact that the bomb was designed with explosive power only capable of a minimal radial impact. It is inconsequential in their eyes that the bomb he planted never went off, that not a single person was killed as a consequence of his activities. They make haphazard connections between the civilian fatalities of the Milk Bar and La Cafétéria and Fernand’s case, which “cannot but remind us of those vile deeds.” The prestige of France is at stake in this trial, the judges repeatedly remind themselves and their audience. Colonial credibility requires his head.
At one point, Fernand manages to lift his shirt in the courtroom when given the chance to speak, revealing the residual markers of torture now ten days old. His lawyers demand medical attention, to determine the source and character of the defendant’s injuries; the court grants them the examination but insists it will be carried out by a military doctor. In the event, “the medical report is read out: the accused has ‘superficial scars on his torso and his limbs’ that, due to their age, ‘the exact cause of these marks is impossible to ascertain’.”
The workings of French law in Algeria, like the wider rituals of colonial enterprise, are exercised with humiliation in mind. Hélène’s enduring stoicism, her insistence on dignity for Fernand, herself, and their family, is a vigorous counter-veiling motif to such structured degradation. One of the initial news reports on Fernand’s arrest describes him as wearing “dirty blue overalls and a shirt of questionable whiteness.” This infuriates Hélène, who has “always insisted on her husband being clean and tidy, the crease in his pants neat, the collar straight and not yellowed near the neck.” The media, as an extension of the French state, has made the ignominy of Fernand’s person its priority, “and now this journalist has the gall to humiliate them this way,” Hélène says to herself, “shamelessly, to paint Fernand as unkempt, a slob. No doubt he thinks himself entitled to disparage workers, to jeer at them from the comfort of his chair, that failure, that hack!” Hélène navigates labyrinthine bureaucracy to ensure Fernand is dressed in a dignified manner for his trial.
On the way to Fernand’s first appearance before the court, “Hélène told her parents-in-law that they must absolutely not shed tears in public, must avoid the slightest show of weakness or fear. All of them, the press and the public, would love the chance to gloat at their torment.” Then, when Fernand is sentenced to death, the European Algerians in the courtroom erupt in “cheers and bravos. Intoxication, bared teeth.” Hélène resists tears, “biting the inside of her cheeks, refusing to make a spectacle of their defeat. One does not throw this kind of meat to dogs. She grips her mother-in-law’s hand to enjoin her to do the same.”
Politics, in every sense, permeates Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, but the specific contours and commitments of Fernand’s position are only expressed clearly toward the end of the novel, in conversation with his new Iraqi cellmate, Abdelaziz, who travelled to Algeria to join the FLN. Fernand explains that he first joined the Algerian Communist Party, and only later entered its armed component, the Combattants de la Libération. When the FLN emerged in 1954, Fernand continues, it “caused mayhem within the Party: activists were divided and the cadres did not know what stance to take. Was it genuine revolution or the doing of reckless agitators, whose excessive radicality played right into the hands of the colonial authorities?” Fernand was frustrated by the party leadership’s adhesion to the legal parameters of struggle. Couldn’t they see that Algeria was at war?
A close friend of Fernand’s, Henri Maillot, had been a quiet European Algerian accountant who fell in love with an Arab communist. Henri infiltrated the French army, hijacked an arms supply truck, and diverted it to the guerrillas. He was eventually assassinated by the French army. It was his murder that decisively propelled Fernand from latent sensibility to action: “The FLN called for a general strike, I took part, as a factory worker. But the Party didn’t budge from its position, it couldn’t decide what to do: it was for independence, but not for armed struggle. But how else could independence be won, in this context? A deal was finally sealed between the Party and the FLN: communist militants could join the FLN, and hence the struggle, but only in a personal, individual capacity. That’s what I did with my comrades.”
From then forward, Fernand took orders from the FLN leadership, but he carved out space for his tactical autonomy. “We didn’t want to hurt civilians, that was out of the question. Killing is permissible during war, but you kill soldiers or terrorists, not innocent bystanders.” Nonetheless, Fernand acknowledged the genuine origins of the commitment to café bombs: “I realize they don’t come out of the blue, just look at the massacres committed by the army. But still, we’re never going to find a solution by killing each other.” Abdelaziz had remained quiet during Fernand’s description of his political history and current commitments, but here he had to interject, “that pilots who bomb villages don’t give a damn about the children cowering inside their homes – an eye for an eye, he concludes, his words as cutting as the blade he does not have on him, that’ll keep those sons of swine in their place.”
Fernand was not a traditional party intellectual, nor unusually autodidactic. On any given day, he was as likely to be reading Football France as L’Humanité. His vision of emancipation, “aspires to just one thing: that the Algeria of tomorrow end up, voluntarily or otherwise, recognizing 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.” What was important was that the land be wrestled back from the control of “a handful of property-owners, barons who possess neither laws nor morals,” who have
reigned over the country with the assent and even the backing of successive French governments: we must get rid of this system, clear Algeria of these kinglets and create a new regime with a popular base, made up of Arab and European workers together, humble people, the small and the unassuming of every race united to defeat the crooks who oppress us and hold us to ransom.
An echo of this perspective is captured more formally in a piece of political propaganda written by Fernand’s friend Henri shortly before his assassination:
I am not Muslim… but I am a European Algerian. I consider Algeria to be my country. I must fulfill toward it the same duties as all of its sons. As soon as the Algerian people rose up to free their land from under the colonial yoke, I knew my place was alongside those engaged in the fight for liberation. The colonial press shouts treason…. It also cried treason when, under Vichy, French officers joined the Resistance, while it was serving Hitler and fascism…. The Algerian people, long thwarted and humiliated, have taken their resolute place in the great historic movement of colonial liberation, a movement which has set Africa and Asia ablaze. Its victory is certain. And this is not, as the biggest owners of wealth in this country would have us believe, a racial conflict, but a struggle of the oppressed, without distinction of origins, against the oppressors and their valets, without distinction of race.
There is a sense in which at least an element of such an emancipated future is prefigured in moments of Arab solidarity that Hélène experiences after the imprisonment of her husband. In a taxi ride home from the police station after Fernand had first been arrested, the chatty driver coaxes her to explain why she is visibly upset. She reveals who her husband is: “No! No! Farouk lets go of the wheel for a few seconds and jiggles his hands. But of course I know Iveton, ma’am! Everyone in our country… this is incredible! Madame Iveton in person, in my taxi, no one will believe Farouk!” He refuses payment for the trip, explaining, “we do not charge the wives of those who fight for the people.”
Again, when Hélène is queuing in the prison parlor for visitation with fifty other people, many of whom are Arab, “a young man, recognizes Madame Iveton, the woman in the papers, in the papers! and applause instantly breaks out. Two veiled women salute her with hands raised to the sky. Others urge her to go in front of them, out of the way, out of the way, it’s Iveton’s wife… let her through!” At the same time as Hélène is hounded and harassed by the crowds of European Algerians outside the courthouse, her neighbours, and the media, she receives anonymous letters in the mail: “Sister, you can go where you please, you are protected. Destroy this letter.”
Fernand is awakened in the earliest hours of the morning. Guards are shaking him. His pardon has been denied. As he is ushered down the prison corridors to his death he thinks of Hélène and Henri:
Stand tall, like them. He hollers into the passageways: Tahia El Djaza Djazaïr (Long Live Algeria)! Once. He hollers so as not to collapse or cry. A second time. Tahia El Djazaïr! A guard tells him to shut it and holds a baton to his waist. Voices answer him already, voices which understand it all. He is taken to the prison registry. Yells, in Arabic, chants and slogans surrounding him, not that he is able to tell where they are coming from. They bounce behind him, sometimes a long way, bump together inside his beleaguered head. The prison flexing its muscles. His temples buzz. Tahia El Djazaïr! Tahi El Djazaïr!
Metal bowls and spoons reverberate against the walls of cells, answered by spontaneous ululations in the streets outside the prison.
Algeria continues to cast a long shadow on contemporary France. In the 1970s and 1980s, as Shatz points out, the far right cultivated that particular brand of racism aimed at people in the country of Algerian descent. It was no coincidence that Jean-Marie Le Pen found his feet as a “paratrooper and torturer” in Algeria before leading the National Front from 1972 to 2011. While his daughter Marine Le Pen’s outfit, Rassemblement National, has made political headway by shedding the overtly fascist insignia of the National front, at base her project remains one of continuity. Emmanuel Macron, for his part, has doubled down on republican laïcité, worried of losing ground to Le Pen should he ease the break on the state’s anti-Muslim hostility. Of course, constituencies with a deep commitment to racism will prefer the authentic item in Le Pen to the weak tea of Macron. Thirty percent of voters between 25 and 34 now support Le Pen, compared to 23 percent in 2017. The losing run-off margin for Jean-Marie Le Pen, when he faced off with Jacques Chirac in 2002, was 18-32 percent. In 2017, the losing margin between Marine Le Pen and Macron in the second round was 34-66. Present forecasts for the losing margin for the same two contenders in 2022 is 47-53.
To the extent that the newly confident far right is sustained by its radical aversion to “Islamic radicalism” in contemporary France, it is a small but important cultural antidote that a novel whose protagonist is an anti-colonial, communist race-traitor won the Prix Goncourt for First Novels. Andras turned down the prize, noting that “competition and rivalry were foreign to writing and creation.”