Fernand Iveton was a young French Algerian communist from Algiers who was guillotined in 1957 for having planted a bomb that was not meant to kill anyone and was discovered before it could even explode. He was tortured mercilessly by his French compatriots and assassinated by the media even before his executioner, also called Fernand, let go of the rope that allowed the blade to drop.
Joseph Andras (1984) tells his story with passion, intellectual clarity, and a literary deftness that is not always easy to find in a novel that is so unashamedly committed to telling an uncomfortable historical truth.
From the paratext I knew how the story would end. I knew that the protagonist I immediately sympathized with was heading inexorably to an unjust death that was far more cynically political than his dissident act of courage could ever have been.
And yet there is nothing predictable about this brilliant novel. Every turn of phrase, every aspect of the plot, every voice, every moment is narrated with the audacity of a novelist who knows that ultimately literature is what you do with words, how you engage your readers, how you pull them into your story and make it their story.
It so happens that I read this novel about “About our wounded brothers” (which is what the title would have sounded like had Simon Leser gone for a literal translation of the original French version) after having watched a brilliant series on the Algerian War of Independence on that gem of a station that is arte.tv.
The novel reminded me of how the story of one person, one episode can tell a much bigger story. Without trying to shoulder the responsibility of telling the “whole story.”
Here’s some paratext:
JOSEPH ANDRAS is the author of the novels De nos frères blessés (2016) and Kanaky. Awarded the Prix Goncourt for De nos frères blessés (Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us), he refused the prize, explaining his belief that “competition and rivalry were foreign to writing and creation”.
Alger, 1956. Fernand Iveton a trente ans quand il pose une bombe dans son usine. Ouvrier indépendantiste, il a choisi un local à l’écart des ateliers pour cet acte symbolique : il s’agit de marquer les esprits, pas les corps. Il est arrêté avant que l’engin n’explose, n’a tué ni blessé personne, n’est coupable que d’une intention de sabotage, le voilà pourtant condamné à la peine capitale.
Si le roman relate l’interrogatoire, la détention, le procès d’Iveton, il évoque également l’enfance de Fernand dans son pays, l’Algérie, et s’attarde sur sa rencontre avec celle qu’il épousa. Car avant d’être le héros ou le terroriste que l’opinion publique verra en lui, Fernand fut simplement un homme, un idéaliste qui aima sa terre, sa femme, ses amis, la vie – et la liberté, qu’il espéra pour tous les frères humains.
Quand la Justice s’est montrée indigne, la littérature peut demander réparation. Lyrique et habité, Joseph Andras questionne les angles morts du récit national et signe un fulgurant exercice d’admiration.