Mouloud Mammeri: L’Opium et le Bâton [Opium and the Stick]
This novel opens in 1957, a significant year in Algeria and in the Franco-Algerian War. French general Jacques Massu took command during the Battle of Algiers, Using torture, he and his men worked out the organisational structure of the FLN and essentially defeated the FLN in Algiers.
At the beginning we meet two men, Ramdane, who may be based on Abane Ramdane, is a university professor, suffering from tuberculosis. Bachir Kazrak is a doctor who, while critical of the French, is somewhat cynical towards the FLN. The pair continuously argue. Kazrak has a French girlfriend, Claude. He has learned that she is pregnant. She expects that they will marry. He has no plans to marry and no plans to be a father. He spends some time rehearsing what he might say and what he might do. All this becomes redundant when, half an hour before curfew, a young man comes to his flat and says that he is urgently needed to assist a man who has accidentally shot himself with his hunting rifle. Kazrak refuses to help, citing the fact that there will not be time to get help before the curfew arrives. However, as the young man leaves, Kazrak sees that he is arrested by the French and he fears that, under torture, he will give Kazrak’s name. At this point, Claude and Ramdane arrives. Ramdane assures his friend that the young man will not talk but Kazrak, nevertheless, spends a worried night. Shortly after five a.m., when the curfew ends, he packs a bag and sets off for his village, well away from Algiers.
At the village, we learn that he has two brothers and a sister. Ali, his younger brother, has joined the FLN and his mother misses him very much. His other brother, Belaid, has sold out and collaborates with the French. As their mother, Smina, says to Farroudja, her daughter, Tu es une fille. Tu ne comptes pas [You are a girl. You don’t count] though she later does assist the FLN and very much plays her part. We learn of Belaid’s life and what led him to collaboration, particularly his difficult time in Paris, following on from his difficult time raising a family in Algeria, where crushing poverty was the norm. We also learn how life has changed, once he finally return from Paris. The French have set up an Algerian defence group to combat the FLN. All adult males are obliged to participate. However, no-one wants to be leader but, when the French force them to select a leader (the men have to stay in the village square till one is selected), they select Tayeb, a man despised by everyone. However, once he is leader, Tayeb abuses his power and gets his revenge on those that have opposed and criticised him.
However, the main focus from this point concerns Ali and Bachir. Bachir has had to leave the village once Ramdane is arrested and has become the doctor for the FLN in the region. While they do not seem to meet, the two brothers are very active in the FLN and we follow their adventures, their capture, what happens to them while in French hands and how and why they get away. Like Mammeri himself, Bachir hides for a while in Morocco (where he has a quick fling), before returning surreptitiously to Algeria. There are several exciting encounters and quasi-encounters between the French military and the FLN. We also follow the action of the French military, with Mammeri being mildly mocking of their tactics. The French are always one war behind, he comments. The French even have a special tactician, nicknamed Hamlet, who fails to capture the key FLN members he was meant to capture. Meanwhile, back in Tala, Taleb is being even more ruthless and cruel, even to his own wife, with torture being used. Indeed, the behaviour of the French and their lackeys gets worse and worse.
Mammeri was a member of the FLN so, on the whole, the FLN members are heroic and the French generally vicious, cruel and murderous. There is no pretence of objectivity in this book as, indeed, why should there be? But Mammeri tells an excellent story, conveys the bravery and the suffering of the Algerian people, shows up their traitors, the collaborators, and portrays the French as not much better than the Nazis in their treatment of the Algerians. Sadly, this book has not been translated into English.
First published in French by Plon in 1965
No English translation