Interview: Boualem Sansal

Algerian writer at odds with authority


Thirty years ago, an Algerian engineer got lost and wound up in a small village, several hours out of his way. The village was spotless, with flowers growing everywhere, quite unlike others in the region. Curious, he asked around and discovered that the village chief was German. "He was a war criminal who had escaped to Egypt at the end of the war", the former engineer now recalls. "When the Algerian War of Independence started, he was sent to Algeria as a military adviser. At the end of the war, he was a hero, a liberator; he converted to Islam, married a local woman and became the village chief."

The engineer, Boualem Sansal, became a writer; the discovery of this village was the genesis of his latest novel, An Unfinished Business.

Sansal explains how, since he published his first novel at the age of 50, he has excited the censure of the Algerian authorities. After publishing the non-fictional Algiers, Poste Restante in 2006 he lost his government post. His books are banned. He contemplates leaving every day - but then the Islamists would have won. "I'm not the person who should leave this country, it's the dictators, the fundamentalists, who should leave. They are the criminals, not me."

An Unfinished Business (translated by Frank Wynne) opens with the revelation of the suicide of Rachel, one of two brothers born in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother. Rachel had escaped the sink estate where he and his younger brother were brought up by relatives after their parents sent them to Paris. His brother Malrich still lives on the estate and has fallen in with local Islamists, who offer a diversion from the tedium of poverty and exclusion.

After their parents were murdered in an Islamist attack on their village, Rachel made the appalling discovery that, during the Second World War, his father had been a chemical engineer, manufacturing Zyklon B gas for the gas chambers. For two years, Rachel obsessively traced his father's history, recording his discoveries in four notebooks later given to Malrich by the local police after Rachel's death. The novel interweaves extracts from Rachel's diaries with Malrich's account of his discovery of this terrible family secret and its impact on his life.

Rachel's exploration of his father's history mirrors the 20-year research into the Shoah undertaken by Sansal. "The truth is no man can ever understand such an ideology. I have struggled so much trying to understand how such things were possible," he says. It is Malrich who offers the novel's one spark of optimism: the possibility of learning from history: "I refuse to believe that God is more evil than man, that children are doomed to their fate."

Sansal draws a parallel between Nazis and Jihadists, necessary he says in order to understand the seismic implications of Islamism: "There are enormous similarities - the concept of conquering: of souls, but also of territories. And there is the idea of extermination - of all those who do not submit to the ideology of Islamism. I believe we have to analyse National Socialism if we are to keep Islamism in check."

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