Rym Kechacha reviews Joseph Andras’ powerful novel, Tomorrow They Won’t Dare To Murder Us, and considers the impact of colonial violence and fights for independence around the world today.
The story goes that the Algerian war of independence started on All Saints day in 1954 when the liberation movement, the FLN, launched a series of attacks across the country with a declaration that they would not stop until Algeria was free. But independence struggles are like hurricanes or wildfires; they don’t just spring into being from nowhere, they have to ferment into their fury. Did Algerian nationalism actually start on 8th May 1945 when, just as Europe was celebrating the defeat of the Nazis, tens of thousands were murdered in Setif? Or could it have been in 1865, with the introduction of the discriminatory Indigenous Code? Maybe we have to go all the way back to 1830 to find a beginning, when the French, itching to get scrambling into Africa, used the excuse of an insult from the Ottoman ruler to invade Algiers.
For my family, it began when my grandfather found out that he was wanted by the French for his revolutionary activities. Hmadou Kechacha owned a business exporting cork for French wines. Before he left to join the guerrilla forces, he made my illiterate grandmother promise she would offer their four daughters as much education as they wanted; he longed for all his children to create the new, liberated nation. He was killed in a helicopter attack just before the end of the war, when my father was about four. He never lived to see a free Algeria, like almost a million others.
Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us (Verso) by Joseph Andras is not concerned with beginnings but takes a single act and allows the story of the war to unspool in its telling. Fernand Iveton, an Algerian of European descent, plants a bomb at the factory where he works and is executed for the crime.
This story is known: from the moment Iveton receives the bomb it can only end one way, but still this slim novel is beautifully tense. In the first half the perspective swaps from paragraph to paragraph in a way that creates a feeling of pressure building between the pages, the events of the war surrounding you like the heat of a crackling fire drawing closer. The torture that Iveton was subjected to (‘an acidic sensation, burning, gnawing, devouring, he howls’) is never overdone but still shocking; and the fact that some of the torturers were themselves tortured by the Nazis as French resistance fighters is dropped wryly into the narrative for the reader to chew upon as they see fit.
Then Andras makes a curious, fascinating choice. He allows all this tension to melt into tender, sticky pools and invites the reader to explore them and begin to mourn already as we wait for the inevitable. Andras describes the romance of Iveton’s love for his wife, his political awakening, his childhood friendships. There are deft touches of setting that capture Algiers in precisely that time of revolution (‘she liked the houses pale whitewash and the sea … the Casbah’s torturous, rickety back streets and its peppers, fish, citrus fruits and severed sheep heads … its harbor bristling with masts and piers.’)
The politics is described with a light touch. It conveys something of the complexities of the different factions but never gets bogged down in the twists and turns of a movement that was at this point in the war, 1956, far from a sure thing. It is in no way necessary to understand anything about French or Algerian politics to enjoy and learn from this novel, it is complete as it is.
As I read, I wondered about my grandfather. Was he tortured, and if so how many of his comrades did he give up? What exactly were his dreams for a free Algeria? Did he kill French soldiers? In the heat of battle or in cold blood? Did he plant any bombs that killed French civilians? And if he did, did he think of his own children as the explosions rocked the bus, café, factory?
The book was a sensation in France. Published as ‘De Nos Frères Blessés’ (‘Of our Wounded Brothers’) it won the Prix Goncourt for a first novel in 2016, days before it had been released in bookshops. The author further inflamed headlines by turning down the prize stating that he believes competition is anathema to the spirit of creation and art. It’s hard not to admire the principle and integrity of this action, and draw some comparison to the principles of Andras’ protagonist. There was a theatrical adaptation at Théâtre de l’Opprimé in late 2019 and a film version directed by Hélier Cisterne released in February 2021. This version in English was translated by Simon Leser who won a PEN America translation grant for his work in 2018. It’s a stunning book: it deserves accolades and adaptations but I wonder if a part of its appeal is in the excavation of such an important, recent and relatively unresolved chapter of French history; telling these kinds of stories and bearing witness for future generations is an act meant to allow scar tissue to form over the colonial wounds.
The stories of this independence war are little known in the Anglophone world – but as I write, I wonder what independence struggles are well known? I know about this war because it’s in my heritage and family lore, but what do I know about the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya, or the partition of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, or the opium wars? They are part of my heritage too. Why would the Anglophone world pay much attention to stories of the colonial crimes of another European state when its dominant mode of dealing with its own is to deny the healing of storytelling; to turn away and suppress the churn of guilt by coldly chiding the storytellers: it’s impolite, it’s over now, it was a good thing really, if it wasn’t us it would have been someone else.
The story goes that the Algerian war of independence ended on 5th July 1962, 132 years to the day since the French arrived in the land. It followed two referendums asking the people if they agreed to the terms of the peace talks. In France 91% voted in favour and in Algeria it was 99.72%.
But do wars of independence ever end? Not for nations who built their nationhoods in opposition to their colonizers and not for nations who built their nationhoods on looted wealth. Not for the electorate of Algeria, who spent many months of 2019 protesting at the lack of real choice on offer in the presidential elections. (After a voter turn out of under 40% and over a million spoiled ballots, the candidate supported by the FLN won.) Not for the electorate of France, who a recent poll suggests would elect Marine le Pen, the far-right National Front leader, over the incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron. (Her father, Jean Marie le Pen, fought in Algeria in 1957 and is accused of engaging in torture.)
Not for British newspaper columnists, who oppose the removal of statues honouring slave traders because they have historical importance but also oppose the work of academics investigating that history. And not for my family, who have built a mythology around a man nobody can quite say they knew; a man whose absence has echoed through generations like all the other wounds of the past; a man who, like Fernand Iveton, might have been forgotten if not for the manner and meaning of his death.
Joseph Andras’ Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us is published by Verso and available to purchase online (with 30% off on the Verso site) now.