Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal

Rachel died six months ago.
Opening to
The German Mujahid
by Boualem Sansal
Translated from the French by
Frank Wynne
Are we guilty for the sins of our parents?

Six months after his brother Rachel's suicide, Malrich is given his diary.  In it he finds the story of Rachel's search for their father's past.  Both of the young men's parents were killed when the small Algerian village where they still lived was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists who massacred the residents, including their father and mother.  Afterwards, Rachel was given his parents' effects which included his father's military records and all of his medals.  That's when he learned that not only did his father serve in the German army during World War II, he was a member of an elite section of the SS serving not just as a concentration camp gaurd but as the man at Auschwitz who instered the Zyclon B into the gas chambers.

That his father kept his military records and his medals, even after fleeing from post war Germany through Turkey and Egypt, converting to Islam and becoming something of a hero in Alegeria's struggle for independance from France shows that he was probably unashamed of his past, maybe even proud of the work he did.

This knowledge and his inability to deal with it eventually leads to Rachel's suicide.  Once Malrich is given his brother's diary along with his father's papers he sets out on a journey of his own, retracing his brother's, back to their childhood village in Algeria.

The book alternates between the journals kept by the two brothers as each attempts to deal with the unaswered questions their father's death has left them.  Malrich's journal brings the story up to the concerns of contemporary Paris as he deals with the rise of a fundamentalist imman on the estate where he spends his days with a small gang of friends.

What first drew me to The German Mujahid is the perspective Mr. Sansal brings to the story of the Holocaust.  The book is billed as the first novel to deal with the Holocaust from an Arab perspective.  While this perspective does add to the story, and the background of Rachel and Malrich certainly informs their behavior, the questions raised by the novel struck me as more universal than specific to any one cultural point of view.  One thing that struck me is how little Rachel and Malrich knew about the Holocaust.  Since he learned next to nothing about it in school, Rachel immerses himself in Holocaust studies once he discovers his father's past.  He spends most of his day reading every book on the subject he can find.  After his death, his collection passes on to Malrich who is just as ignorant of the subject as his brother was and just as anxious to learn all that he can about it.  But even this is a universal experience, I think.  It comes later in life for Mr. Sansal's characters but it's typical of many American teenagers once they've read The Diary of Anne Frank, or something similar, in high school.

There is a scene in Rachel's journal where he describes visiting Auschwitz while retracing his father's military carreer.  He deliberatly arrives early to get a sense of the place without the presence of tour busses and tour groups.  He imagines what the experience must have been like for the prisoners and for his father as well. After a while, other people begin to arrive.  Rachel strikes up a conversation with a man who turns out to be a survivor, someone who lost family members in another camp where his father worked.  While Rachel does not reveal why he has come to Auschwitz, he runs after the survivor on the way back to the tour bus and apologizes to her for what happened there.  The survivor is moved nearly to tears by this gesture; no one had ever apologized to her before.

I'm not schooled enough in the history of Algeria to say much about how The German Mujahid reflects anything specific to any one particular cultural point of view about the Holocaust.  One thing that struck me about Mr. Sansal's novel is how easy it is for people to join the group and participate in murder.  The main character's father was  simply a chemist before the war.  He is later murdered, along with his wife and most of their village, by a group of religious fanatics.  The fundamentalist imman on the Paris estate easily manages to convince the young men there that they should murder a teenage girl who is not following the proper codes of dress and conduct for young Muslim women.  The rest of the estate, rather than fight back against this imman is soon either in league with him or in hiding from his followers.  What happened in 1930's Germany is writ small in an Algerian village and then again on an estate outside Paris.  In all three cases, brutal acts are tolerated if not supported by the autorities who ought to stop them.

So by the end of the The German Mujahid the reader wonders not just how guilty are we for the sins of our parents, but how different would we have been if we were in there shoes.  


Carol N Wong said...

So glad that you reviewed this book. I have been trying to decide whether or not to buy it. Now I think I will, when I have the money.

Thank you again.

Biblibio said...

I think one of the things that struck me most about The German Mujahid was that fact about Rachel and Malrich being so unfamiliar with the Holocaust. But I was also surprised at how little Sansal seemed to understand either, often leading his characters to derive completely the wrong conclusions from the events of the times. It felt very confusing, and maybe even a little frustrating. I wanted to teach the characters... and couldn't. Whether this was a deliberate choice on Sansal's behalf, or the accidental result of his own ignorance (I'd like to think it's the previous), it certainly stuck.

Anna said...

This one sounds intriguing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.