martes, 30 de septiembre de 2014

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962

A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (NYRB Classics, 2006)
by Alistair Horne
England, 1977 & 2006

Having owned this fat 500+ page history for almost a full five years now according to the remaindered sticker on the front cover of my copy of it, I was genuinely relieved when I finally got around to finishing it both because it will never glare at me unloved from my TBR shelves again and, more to the point, Horne was just a little too good at documenting the widespread targeting of innocents in terrorist bombing campaigns and machine gun attacks, the many massacres, and all the atrocities that took place on both sides of the struggle during Algeria's war for independence.  That latter point is of course no knock on Horne or on his otherwise engrossing work informed by interviews with many of the winners and the losers of the war.  In any event, as somebody with virtually no prior knowledge of this moment in French/Algerian/French Algerian history, I thought A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 was more or less a model introduction to the subject of the death throes of what was once referred to as l'Algérie française.  In Part One's "Prelude 1830-1954," for example, Horne gets things started in setting up the backdrop to why mainland France would find achieving an Algerian compromise so difficult in the ensuing years by explaining that "in order to understand events from 1954 onward it is necessary to accept the existence of three totally distinct peoples - the French of France, the French of Algeria, and the Muslims of Algeria" (53-54).  In Part Two's "The War 1954-1958," Horne jumps right into the nitty gritty of the endless cycle of Muslim on white and white on Muslim violence and reprisals that will occupy his attention throughout the rest of the book, introducing the reader to such unpleasant terminology as the ratonnade (literally a "rat hunt" but here used as a euphemism for the vigilante violence entailing the rounding up and killing of Arabs as a form of blood sport revenge for violence suffered at the hands of Muslims by the pieds noirs or colonial Algerian white community) and to such topics as the Battle of Algiers and a blow by blow of the terror and torture tactics and extrajudicial killings employed by all sides during France's war with the F.L.N. (Front de Libération Nationale).  Part Three's "The Hardest of All Victories 1958-1962," primarily concerned with the end of the war in Algeria, the proliferation of pro-French Algeria right-wing extremist groups in Algeria opposed to both fellow Frenchmen and Muslim Algerians, and the eventual response of rebel French military factions so dismayed with de Gaulle's Algeria policy that they planned to take the war to the mainland and carry out a putsch on French soil, offers up more of the same but with a little more emphasis on political as opposed to military history; one French politico succinctly summarizes the mood among non-F.L.N. members with his dejected comment that "the relations between Algeria and France are a graveyard of missed opportunities" (528).  While aware that this rather bare bones outline of A Savage War of Peace doesn't really do justice to the amount of ground Horne covers in the book, I'd still like to shift gears and talk about the author as a writer rather than a historian for a moment.  Stylistically, Horne's work benefits from both the occasional well-turned phrase ("Revolt, and revenge in the Corsican fashion, were honored occupations from time immemorial," he writes about one sector of Algerian society early on [49]) and from the selection of memorable quotes ("Of the F.A.F. demonstrations, Mouloud Feraoun wrote contemptuously, 'they resemble senile beggars who masturbate in a corner to make people believe that they are virile'" [430]) that serve as a brief respite from all the neverending violence on display under the historian's microscope.  While Horne's a bit repetitive and maybe a tad old-fashioned in his biases at times--he makes several references to some variation of the description of "the blood-curdling you-you-you ululations" (431) of Muslim women, for example--perhaps that's a small price to pay given his predominantly bias-free account of years of butchery and torture and the sad but affecting way an Algerian moderate like Albert Camus gets written into and out of Horne's history as the violence escalates.  A monumental but a monumentally depressing piece of work.

Alistair Horne

miércoles, 24 de septiembre de 2014

Balzac x 3

Le Père Goriot (Gallimard, 2012)
by Honoré de Balzac
France, 1835

The Girl with the Golden Eyes [La Fille aux yeux d'or] (Melville House Publishing, 2007)
by Honoré de Balzac [translated from the French by Charlotte Mandel]
France, 1835

"Honoré de Balzac's 'Vision' of Paris"
by Owen Heathcote
England, 2013

In a brief but illuminating-for-this-particular-Balzac-neophyte essay on "Honoré de Balzac's 'Vision' of Paris" included in The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of Paris edited by Anna-Louise Milne (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 71-84), Owen Heathcote makes the claim that "Balzac's appetite for observation"--and in particular his mythification of the city in print--"has contributed to establishing what 'Paris' is to such an extent that his vision is now inseparable from the so-called actual city.  It is no exaggeration to say that this author, famed for his 'realism,' also gave us the 'idea of Paris,' a 'paper cathedral' that absorbs the material world and replaces it with text" (74).  Whatever you make of the details of Heathcote's argument, his contention provides a convenient enough prism through which to view two Parisian novels which couldn't be more dissimilar in terms of artistic quality: Balzac's grand, wrenching Le Père Goriot and the same author's dreadful, often clownish The Girl with the Golden Eyes [La Fille aux yeux d'or].  How can thinking about these two works as examples of "Balzacian Parisian novels" help us to appreciate them in a different light than we might on purely aesthetic grounds?  As many of you already know, Le Père Goriot begins with a famous extended description of a down-at-the-heels boarding house home to a motley crew of Parisians and ends with an even more famous description of another sort of Parisian rest home, Père Lachaise cemetery, from which the no longer innocent Eugène de Rastignac, a transplanted provincial, surveys a panorama of the city which has just educated him in what it will take for him to survive amid all the meanness and scheming and social climbing of his new urban milieu.  The novel's worthy of its hype on many different levels, of course, but for my $$$ one of the not so secret secrets to its success is the way the impressionable young Rastignac is forced to choose between two role models--a charismatic criminal named Vautrin who, in the course of a nearly 10 page-long rant against society, tells Rastignac that the only two choices in life are between "une stupide obéissance ou la révolte" ["mindless obedience or revolt"] (147) and that "l'honnêteté ne sert à rien" ["honesty doesn't serve anyone"] (152), and the long-suffering title character, at one point described as "ce Christ de la Paternité" ["this Christ of fatherhood"] (282), who sacrifices everything for his two daughters' well-being only to be rejected by them in his hour of need.  Rastignac's choice should be clear but ultimately isn't given the accomplished and devastating high-wire act Balzac pulls off in the finale.  Unfortunately, where Le Père Goriot tells a story of substance and depth with appropriate references to local color even at its most melodramatic (for example, as early as the third page in, a mention of the Catacombs leads the narrator to blurt out--"Comparaison vraie!  Qui décidera de ce qui est plus horrible à voir, ou des coeurs desséches, ou des crânes vides?" ["A true comparison!  For who can say what's more horrible to observe: either dried-up hearts or empty skulls?"] [23]), The Girl with the Golden Eyes is hollow, bombastic and buffoonish in its telling of what's essentially a pulp love story.  Which is not to say that the descriptions of "the soul of Paris" being responsible for its "cadaverous physiognomy" (4) aren't amusing or that the narrator's claim that "all passion in Paris is focused on two goals: gold and pleasure" (21) is any less serious a critique of the headlong pursuit of power and wealth than the one found in Le Père Goriot.  However, unintentionally funny lines like the description of hero Henri de Marsay's "slim, aristocratic waist" (34) and howlers like the Girl with the Golden Eyes' description of a love nest as "this retreat was built for love" (87) read more like a parody of a gothic novel which just happens to be set in Paris rather than the complex statement about Paris Balzac set down in Le Pére Goriot.  Heathcote, interestingly enough, provides one reason to consider taking The Girl with the Golden Eyes seriously in speaking of the "feminisation of Paris which runs throughout La Comédie humaine."  Although it pains me to even think about ever reading the ridiculous The Girl with the Golden Eyes again, I must confess that Heathcote almost tempts me with his provocative assertion that just as "'Woman,' like Paris" is both "an enigma to be solved" and "a territory to be conquered" for Le Père Goriot's Rastignac, "if, moreover, as will be seen in La Fille aux yeux d'or, Paris is also associated with the courtesans of ancient Babylon or imperial Rome, then the identification of woman and Paris extends back in time and over space: the feminisation of Paris facilitates the transformation of description into myth and the transformation of La Comédie humaine into a new, but age-old, epic with Paris as its epicentre.  At the same time, Paris also becomes a new, nineteenth century hell - both as irresistible lure and as inescapable labyrinth" (75).  Interesting thoughts to be sure--although Heathcote clearly missed a chance to go after some low-hanging fruit when he neglected to associate The Girl with the Golden Eyes' description of an elderly woman as "the old mummy" (72) with the ancient Egyptians as he maybe could have and should have given all that ancient Babylon and imperial Rome talk.  Whatever!

Le Père Goriot and The Girl with the Golden Eyes were books #8 and #9 out of a projected vingt-quatre read for the Books on France 2014 Reading Challenge.  Still way off the pace but a little less so than I was a month ago.  No need to play the all-novellas-in-translation card just yet, but there may be after Germinal!

domingo, 14 de septiembre de 2014


Rabia (Interzona, 2005)
by Sergio Bizzio
Argentina, 2005

Sergio Bizzio's aptly-titled Rabia [or Rage in its English incarnation from translator Amanda Hopkinson] was an edgy and entertaining if maybe overly frothy first course taste treat for this year's Argentinean (& Uruguayan) Literature of Doom line-up, which is to say that I enjoyed Bizzio's tale dedicated to a working class homicidal maniac on the loose in upscale Buenos Aires more than I'm likely to remember the misanthropic meringue after having savored and ingested it.  Still, frothy doom?!?  It wasn't entirely filling if you catch my drift, but enough about you, let's talk about me.  In what's something of a provocation-minded cross between a Buñuelesque black comedy and a Río de la Plata novel of manners set in the Buenos Aires de hoy en día, disgruntled 40-year old construction worker and loner José María meets and then falls head over heels in love with good-natured 25-year old live-in maid Rosa before eventually holing up in Rosa's employers' mansion unbeknownst to her and her high society bosses the Blinders for years when our hero's anger management issues bring him into trouble with the law.  Much of what follows once María (the character usually goes by his second name) goes into hiding and effectively drops out of society is farfetched but narrated with generous dollops of humor and brio, my favorite moments having to do with the zesty class war zingers that the protagonist occasionally lets loose with when his stealthy close quarters living arrangements as an intruder in the Blinder household lead him to make various anthropological observations about the vapid reading (Dr. Wayne Dyer, Reader's Digest) and viewing habits of his moneyed but generally soulless "hosts" in the embassy-sized home of theirs that he's occupied.  On that note, although it occurs to me that I could prob. alter the recipe for this Rabia review into something more appetizing-sounding to a couple of you by merely changing "Buñuelesque" to "Aira-esque" in that sentence above, by talking about the transformation that María undergoes once he becomes "part of the family" so to speak, or even by maybe just beefing up the post with another good Bizzio quip or two, the following description concerning the living room TV watching habits of the man in the family is prob. much more typical of the novel's true charms and appeal (the quote in question is taken from page 154 in the 2005 original and from page 149 in Amanda Hopkinson's 2009 translation available from Bitter Lemon Press):

Allí sólo excepcionalmente el señor Blinder miraba otra cosa que fútbol.  En una de esas ocasiones María se enteró de que los Estados Unidos habían atacado Irak y que en un country de la Provincia de Buenos Aires una mujer de clase alta había sido asesinada, quizá por uno de sus familiares, sin que los investigadores consiguieran descubrir al asesino.  La guerra y el crimen del country --con las interminables discusiones y conjeturas que despertó-- eran los únicos asuntos que para el señor Blinder habían tenido en mucho tiempo más atractivo que el fútbol.

[There Señor Blinder watched almost nothing but football matches.  On one occasion, María gathered that the United States had attacked Iraq, and that a woman in a country house somewhere in Buenos Aires province, an upper-class woman, had been murdered, possibly by a family member, although an extensive investigation had thus far failed to find the assassin.  The war and the rural crime - with all the interminable discussions and conjectures they elicited - were the only subjects which, in the course of many years, had proved substantially more attractive than football.]

Sergio Bizzio

For a more appreciative take on Bizzio's Rabia, which--don't get me wrong--I did in fact enjoy, Spanish readers are encouraged to check out Ever from barcoborracho's high-energy post on the novel here (gracias a Ever por la recomendación).
Also, on an unrelated note, anybody interested in joining me for a group read of Macedonio Fernández's Museo de la novela de la Eterna [a/k/a The Museum of Eterna's Novel (The First Good Novel)] is invited to check back here somewhere around the end of the month or the beginning of the next month--a bit behind on the group reads these days alas.