Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Algerians in Europe: "Clash of Civilizaitons..." and "The German Mujahid"

By accident rather than design, I ended up reading two books by Algerian writers with similar themes: both deal, at least in part, with the experience of emigrants from the "bled" -- the hinterland of countries like Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia -- in contemporary Europe, specifically France and Italy. While the books couldn't be more different in nature, both shed light on the struggle that surrounds European efforts to develop a "multicultural" tolerance.

The Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous, takes the lightest of approaches to this weighty subject, veering occasionally to the comedic elements: even as those residents from other parts of Italy (who despise the foreigners in their midst in the apartment building in Rome that is the heart of the story) look down on each other as being non-Italian -- supporters of the wrong football team, perhaps, or from Naples. The only individual whom each of them believes he or she can clearly see and admire is Amedeo. And yet it's Amedeo who seems to be at the heart of the police questioning that elicits the "testimonies" from the apartment building's residents that make up the bulk of the book (interspersed with diary-style comments from the absent Amedeo.) Because it seems that Amedeo is the prime suspect in the death of an unlamented hooligan named "The Gladiator", an Italian, to be sure, but one who few residents liked half as much as they admire Amedeo. So much do they admire Amedeo, in fact, that they universally reject the idea that he's an immigrant himself, whatever they are told.

The individual tales are poignant and hilarious; the commentary from Amedeo that follows each shows the ways in which individuals deceive themselves by sharing with the reader the details of his interactions with the character in question, and the "truth" of the matter. Their mutual misunderstandings come to a head in conflicts around the use of the elevator that they must share -- all except Amedeo, who fears the enclosed space and opts to take the stairs. ( Benedetta, the concierge, interprets that as a sign of consideration for her personally, in one of the typical misunderstandings.) And it is in the elevator that the body of the Gladiator has been found...  Only toward the end of this novella do we learn the truth about Amedeo himself, something so dark that even the murder of the Gladiator seems anticlimactic. This was a humorous, wry and sardonic look at the way humans view the "other", and at our willingness to break down these barriers and make exceptions to our rules on occasion. Lakhous has unveiled the truths that lie behind prejudice and preconceptions of all kinds. 4.2 stars.

The German Mujahid is an altogether darker vision of the relationship between immigrants from North Africa and the French who accommodate them only reluctantly in their midst. Malrich Schiller is the son of a German father and Algerian mother, now living in one of those housing estates on the outskirts of Paris that the rest of the world hears about only in context of riots and rebellion. Malrich, however, has a first-hand view of the way that Islamists are seizing control of the estate and creating a nation within a nation -- a world that has as little tolerance for those who are non-compliant as did Nazi Germany. And that's a comparison that Malrich is forced to come to grips with on a personal level, when his elder brother Rachel (Rachid Helmut) dies, and Malrich inherits his diary and their father's personal effects -- including SS medals from World War II. On their father's death in a remote Algerian community -- possibly at the hands of Islamists -- Rachel had initially seen him as a victim, only to realize that he may have been a perpetrator of a different and yet related horror. After exploring his father's history, Rachel finds his conclusions impossible to live with; Malrich, by contrast, takes a different path...

Sansal's strength is his ability to deliver two parallel tales in utterly different and utterly convincing voices -- that of a mature man whose world collapses, and that of an adolescent who must decide on a path for himself that escapes the paradigm of victim and oppressor. Malrich's tone is that of a young guy chatting to his friends; Rachel's the more sober and analytical; both are utterly convincing. Who is guilty? And what does it mean to resist? These are weighty topics; Sansal does an excellent job of dealing with them to the extent that any author can. 4.3 stars, definitely recommended.