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An Ugly Truth? Le village de l’Allemand ou le journal des Frères Schiller [The German Man’s Village or the Diary of the Schiller Brothers] a novel by Boualem Sansal. Paris: Gallimard 2008, 264pp.* Reviewed by Michelle Mazel

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:3-4 (Fall 2008)

“When I see what the Islamists are doing where we live and elsewhere, I tell myself they will do worse than the Nazis if they take over one day,” says Malrich, one of the book’s two main protagonists, a young Muslim born in Algiers who lives in a dreary Paris suburb. (222) A suburb he says is becoming more and more like a concentration camp ruled by its two leaders he calls the Emir and the Imam. (257) The author of these inflammatory statements, the man who puts these words in the mouth of his young hero, is a Muslim himself, a man born and bred in Algiers.

Drawing a parallel between National Socialism as practiced by Hitler and modern day Islamism is a risky business, as Boualem Sansal discovered at great personal cost. A hitherto respected public servant in his native country Sansal did not attempt to hide his growing dismay with the extent to which radical Islam was taking over his country. Soon, official displeasure at his outspokenness led to his dismissal and later to the dismissal of his wife.

He now lives from his writing though he came to literature rather late: he was fifty years old when he published his first novel in 1999. Le serment des Barbares [The Oath of the Barbarians] was an immediate success in France where it won a prestigious prize. His fifth book, “The German Man’s Village” published at the beginning of the year, is not likely to improve his standing at home. Very well received in France, where it was hailed as a remarkable work and received yet another prize, the novel was immediately banned in Algiers.

The tale of the Schiller brothers is deceptively simple. They were born in the small village which gives the book its title. Their father, hailed as a hero of the war of independence, is a German who fought the French, converted to Islam in order to marry the beautiful daughter of the village leader, becoming himself the leader at his father in law’s death. Rachel and Malrich, the couple’s two sons, were sent to France to seek a better life.

Their unusual names reflect their dual origin: Rachel is short for Rashid-Helmut; Malek-Ulrich became Malrich. Malrich is not yet 17 but dropped out of school years before. He lives in a cité, a drab suburb of Paris peopled mainly by first and second generation Muslims of North African descent and African immigrants. He is well known to the police though has managed to avoid jail so far. Rachel, his big brother, is a success story. Tall, blond, he excelled at school and became an engineer, obtained French citizenship and married a nice French girl. The couple lived in a fancy house at the very edge of the same suburb. And yet one day Rachel, who has shaved his head, puts on a striped pajama and gasses himself in the basement of his house.

A stunned Malrich, trying to come to terms with what happened, is handed the dead man’s diary. He thus narrates this tale. Reading the diary with all its big words was hard work, he says, and he had to resort to the dictionary more than once. When in turn he decides to write what had happened, he needs to ask a former teacher to rewrite his text in good French. He says he felt he had to do it for his own sake and that of his brother. The teacher, he adds, asked that her name be omitted, fearing hostile reactions from the denizens of the cité.

Everything apparently began with the assassination of the brothers’ parents in their small village. Rachel goes back for the first time in many years and discovers that his father had been a decorated officer in the SS after having been a member of the Hitler youth movement. Among his military papers are listed some of the places where he served: Dachau, Mauthausen, Buchenwald, Auschwitz… The names did not mean much to the young brother, born in a country where no mention is ever made of the Holocaust, of which much of the population remains ignorant, but Rachel’s explanations enlighten him.

Upon his return, Rachel, shattered by his discovery, embarks on an obsessive search for the truth about the father he used to revere. He leaves his job, his wife leaves him, but he perseveres. His quest leads him to some of his father’s former colleagues in the SS and eventually to Birkenau where he meets a survivor. He cannot take anymore. “For my father, for the victims, I am going to pay, though I did nothing. Justice will be done.” (263)

And Malrich, the young brother, stops every so often his reading to compare what he is discovering to what is happening in the cité where a succession of dreadful events mark the takeover of the Islamists. A girl burned to death, youngsters brainwashed and sent on suicide missions to Iraq or Afghanistan, people trying to oppose the new order browbeaten, beaten or driven away. In a desperate bid to do something, Malrich writes to the French minister of the Interior. “Islamists, he says, have taken over our cité … it is not yet a camp of extermination but already a concentration camp… we are slowly forgetting that we live in France, half an hour away from Paris, its capital city…… If this goes on the cité will soon be an Islamic republic….You will have to wage war in order to stop it from expanding…” (231)

Malrich never gets an answer and together with his friends wonders what to do. Should they give up and leave before it is too late? Should they stay and fight to the end?

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* Although it is editorial policy to review only well-referenced non-fiction books, on occasion authors do publish novels with a solid factual content. They do so in most cases for political reasons and to escape the rigor of censorship and its consequences. For this reason, and because this subject will be of interest to the readers of JPSR, the book review editor has decided in this case to take note of Le village de l’Allemand ou le journal des Frères Schiller.

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MICHELLE MAZEL is a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris and the Faculté de Droit of that city.