Algerian writer Sansal makes his English-language debut with a novel about brothers who learn their father was a war criminal.
Malrich and Rachel Schiller were born in rural Algeria and raised by an uncle in an increasingly dangerous (and, lately, Islamic-fundamentalist) ghetto in Paris. Rachel, the elder, is the good boy, stable and industrious; Malrich is unmoored, alienated and angry. In 1994, their Algerian mother and German father are killed in a massacre in the village of Aín Deb. Troubled by the fact that his parents are listed under false names in the roster of the dead, Rachel investigates and discovers that his father was an SS officer who worked in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Devastated by this revelation, he withdraws, loses his job and cuts his ties with loved ones. He devotes himself to an exhaustive study of his father’s sins and to meditation on guilt and penitence. After a visit to Auschwitz, he goes into seclusion, wastes away dressed in the striped trousers worn by camp inmates and eventually gasses himself to death in April 1996 (a culmination revealed in the novel’s opening sentence). The struggling Malrich is left to cope with both his father’s legacy and the havoc it wrought on his brother. Sansal daringly suggests an analogy between radical Islam and Nazism (which may be why the book was banned in his homeland), and his accounts of war-torn, ideologically riven Algeria and the grim ghettoes of Paris are powerful and heartfelt. Regrettably, the novel, told mainly through excerpts from the brothers’ diaries, doesn’t cohere. The musings on moral philosophy can be moving, but Rachel and Malrich ultimately seem less like people than containers for the abstract ideas Sansal wants to explore.
A worthy subject treated with plodding artificiality.