Books The WoundThe Wound /Des Hommes, is an absolutely remarkable novel from Laurent Mauvignier, his seventh [now up to eleven] in the French Resistance rooted Éditions de Minuit. What begins as an awkward, and suspect gift at a 60th birthday party in a small French village opens into a tangle of family emotions, recollections and recriminations, which open further into a chilling story of the Algerian war, in which several of the men had participated –the wound of which still affects the individuals and French society as a whole.

Mauvignier has described how the impulse for the novel, and some of the scenes in it, came from his own childhood.

“My mother used to show me pictures my father took in Algeria, where he was stationed for 28 months. In these photos there was no sign of war, or of the violence my mother would talk about. They were almost like holiday pictures, with smiling kids, nice landscapes, sun, the city of Oran. But when my father committed suicide, the question began to gnaw at me: Did the Algerian war have something to do with it? If so, who will speak about what has been silenced? What is it that has been silenced?”

Or, as the narrator has it

“…far from here, far from those days too, very far away there are reasons, connections, networks, invisible things working on us and we don’t understand a thing about them.”

In immersive streams of language, sometimes of consciousness, often rushed, broken, spilling on the uneven terrain of memory Mauvignier pulls us in.

“Wait a minute, if I can confirm.  If I.  That. You want me to. Me to tell you.  And for me to confirm yes, here, what happened here.  We’re not going to talk about that, not here, it’s impossible, we’re not going to.

The rush of clauses, in mixed tenses, catches the speed of the events described,

Woodsmoke raised his head and saw Chefraoui above him on the stoop of the house, Chefraoui furious this time, looking at him. The moped started up, it leaves its stand and skids on the snow, the brake Woodsmoke hadn’t tightened, the wheel going too fast, too hard, the moped touching the ground while the wheel is free, it sends the moped flying too fast, zigzagging, Woodsmoke trying to take control again with his arms tensed and his torso leaning back, but Chefraoui is almost upon him, he touches his arm, the thick blood sticks to his hand and Woodsmoke quickly puts his foot on the ground and pushes with his heel to pull the engine that misfires, slows down, hesitates, bogged down in the snow, the holes, pebbles flying … Chefraoui’s hand closed on Woodsmoke’s arm and the shouts, a few shouts drowned under the shouting of the engine…

The slender novel (230 pages) is divided into four sections: Afternoon, Evening, Night and Morning.  As Mauvignier says, although it’s a story about a war it’s not a history.  It is only a day, but a day in which sentences pull apart to reveal sentences beneath, to reveal a day honeycombed and weighted with event and memory, not all fitting together. Like life.

In “The Afternoon” we are introduced to Bernard, now called Woodsmoke, and his extravagant gift to his sister on her birthday.  Coming from a man, impoverished and strange, the gift sets off a storm of anger and suspicion. We get to know the family; its tensions come into view.  Seemingly out of nowhere he hurls anti-Arab abuse at one of the guests, Chefraoui.  He is sent away, returning his siblings’ anger with scorn and a few punches thrown.  Jump-cut to the Mayor of town and gendarmes arriving to question the narrator, Rabut, about his cousin, Woodsmoke.  The story of what happened after he left the party comes out, in hesitant questions and answers: a visit to Chefraoui’s home, terrifying wife and children.

“The Evening” fills in more on Bernard and Rabut, their shared youth, joining the French army in Algeria, Bernard still under age, his intolerant religiosity.  We learn that the other men came back in ’62 after the war, but Bernard, newly married to the daughter of a Pied-Noir, counting on a dowry which ceases to exist at the end of the war,  cuts contact with his family and disappears in Paris. Another army comrade is invoked to recall finding Bernard and re-connecting him to the rest of the family, then,leaving his wife and children, to return to the hamlet in La Migne fifteen years after the war.  The Arab question becomes more central to the narrative. Rabut himself, is rattled by his own question: When did you first see an Arab? A real Arab, not just photos from a distant, exotic land?

“The Night” is the heart of the book, a harrowing resurfacing of memory, and the longest of the four. It is perhaps the best fictional re-creation I have read of what was once called “soldiers’ heart,” and today carries the more clinical acronym PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder –with many arguing to drop the “disorder.”) The chapter opens with a scene we’ve all seen too often in newsreels and movie simulacrums of the real thing

“What happens — First, how very fast the soldiers smash in the doors and charge into the houses with their guns in their hands, the houses so low, so dark it takes time for the eyes to get used to it and find only a few women and old men, sometimes children deep inside the rooms … the soldiers sweep through the village yelling as they run, they yell to buck themselves up, to frighten, like rattling groans, hard breathing….”

Reading some of the pages is  to revisit books like Nick Turse’s, Kill Anything That Moves, an investigative revelation of American behavior in the Vietnam war: an officer brandishing a baby by the neck demanding to know from the terrified women where the men are; the charred bodies from a napalm attack; young girls giving themselves, or being taken.  Descriptions of soldiers’ fear in the night at the slightest sound, of men pissing themselves, of exemplary torture intended to demoralize the enemy make The Wound a sharp reminder of what such a war is like, the nature of the knives that create such wounds.

Bernard, so disruptive in the beginning, is now a young boy in Algeria, enlisted in the army on a young boy’s anger.  As he patrols he looks:

“… at the relocation center, they have to walk through the camp to inspect it, and today Bernard looks at the people and wonders what they would do, what we would do, in the hamlets of La Migne, if soldiers had come in and razed everything, broke everything, prevented us from farming, from working.  He imagines.  … He imagines his brothers and the children playing the way he’s seen the children here, around the fountain with toys made out of steel wires… what the hell are we doing here, he can see it’s ridiculous, being here makes no sense, let’s go home…

As a novel  one of the most satisfying things is that while much is explained, not all is explained.  We get intimations, probabilities, but not psychiatric pronouncements, or fictional loose ends tied up into neat packages.  We think, but we do no know, where the money for Bernard’s extravagant gift came from.  We think, but we do not know, why the money was taken.  We never learn what became of the wife and children he left behind, or of the steps from empathy with the detained Arabs to hatred of them.  We don’t know what becomes of  Bernard, or Chefraoui. But that’s all right, because it’s not that kind of a story.  Even the narrator, Rabut, at the end is left in a suspended state, his car overturned in the snow, he himself hanging in the shoulder straps,  “…and I was glad I couldn’t move anymore … I just had to wait, it felt good, too, that for a while nothing moved…”

Perhaps because the lava of memory has finally appeared on the surface of their lives, he is able to imagine going back to Algeria, “to see if it exists, and if I, too, had left something more than my youth back there…”

Powerful stuff

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We are, of course, reading this in English, still with the run-on sentences, stream of consciousness, non-quoted speech of the original.  David and Nicole Ball are a husband-wife, American-French, team with many notable translations to their credit, none, I suspect, as difficult as this must have been.  The referents, even speakers, are sometimes so elusive it must have been a work of late-nights and triple-checking original and translated meaning.

“The moment of getting to the base and already discovering that weird picture: who says it first, who dares to say it, give it a name and say,

Jesus, did you see—no, I don’t know who says it.

Only something travels very fast from one pair of eyes to another. Any you try to understand. Or rather, try not to be overwhelmed by what you’re thinking, by what your eyes have seen.”

The intriguing thing is that the difficulty of following the text — not always, but in stretches– has the benefit of slowing down the reading.  The plot and the unknown at the heart of it pull us on, but slowing to re-read, to take in what has happened, gives the opportunity to consider the characters in relation to each other, and of the effect of the war on them.

There isn’t much in the fine-fitting translation that caused me a double take, though in a story about Frenchmen and Algerian war veterans I wouldn’t have used a few American colloquialisms like  “badmouthing,”  or something “being a drag,”  or being sent on “Java duty. Getting any kind of argot from one language to another is one of a translator’s most difficult jobs.  You don’t want your English speaking characters (French, German, Mandarin) to sound smoothed and rounded off  as if speaking radio English, but neither do you want them speaking (too much) like some “equivalent” North American argot, say Cajun, West Virginian, East Texas.  The Balls have made very few choices that need defending and those that might be, can be.

It is worth noting that their translation, published by University of Nebraska Press, follows an earlier Nebraska released book about Algeria and the behavior of French troops, the torture and war there.  The Edicione Minuit 1958 blockbuster –published in the middle of the Algerian War– The Question  by Henri Alleg was republished in 2009.

“This new edition represents a colossal effort on the part of several people,” says James D. Le Sueur, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who helped to shepherd the project and wrote its introduction. Mr. Le Sueur became familiar with The Question when he was conducting research for his first book, Uncivil War: Intellectuals and Identity Politics During the Decolonization of Algeria (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001).

“In late 2002, just before the Iraq war began, the journalist Mark Bowden called Mr. Le Sueur to ask about the history of French torture in Algeria. During that conversation, the professor says, he realized that Mr. Alleg’s book ought to be brought back into print in English.

The new edition, the first since 1958, includes an afterword in which Mr. Alleg draws parallels between French conduct in Algeria and the American treatment of detainees at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.” [From  The Chronicle of Higher Education]

Books The Question

In these days of terror attacks on cities, schools, stores and restaurants in France, England, Spain, Turkey, America, The Wound reminds us that in the not so distant past, very similar terror was used against Arab-Algerians, in their thousands. Torture, by both French and FLN soldiers was common currency between the warring sides. When we mourn the victims in Paris, November, 2015 and think about revenge for the 130 innocents who died at the hands of volunteer soldiers to a Caliphate in waiting it is easy to forget that in 1995 over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were rounded up and killed by Serbian Orthodox Christian solders. Or, that on March 16, 1968, in My Lai, a village in the rice fields of Vietnam, over 350 died, many of them infants and children, from bullets, bayonets and explosives in the hands of U.S., mostly Christian, soldiers.  From 2001 to today, in more than seven “incidents,” over 250 Afghans have died –while attending wedding ceremonies; killed by American guns, bombs, missiles and drones. In the battle of ideas some of these are called terrorism, some aren’t; depending on whose idea.  The reality is, to the dead and the terrorized, those who suffered it, those who carried it out, it’s the same damn thing.

When the excitement of war obscures our ability to see the injuries and deep wounds that will follow, books like The Wound are reminders that, as to wars, the past is a good predictor of the future.