Fanon was the great West Indian figure linked to the Algerian war. But, behind this totem of the Algerian national struggle, hide all the soldiers, called up or professionals, who came from the West Indies to African lands in order to defend the French empire. In his new novel, Raphaël Confiant follows the journey of three characters. Juvénal Martineau, mulatto from a middle-class family, left Saint-Cyr and who will accept to serve until the end. Nevertheless. Then his comrade officer, Ludovic Cabont, from a humble black family, but to whom a lively intelligence will also allow Saint-Cyr to integrate. Cabont will end up going over to the side of “the enemy” Fellaga, and taking up the bush against his former comrades. Finally, Dany Béraud, a Sorbonnard called up for the army and who will join the Algerian fight.
These three characters are caught up in the historical paradox of having to defend an Algerian colonial reality while they themselves come from a Martinican society that continues to divide into colorist strata resulting from colonization. Their world will explode with the violence of war. However, Raphaël Confiant does not fall into any angelism. He also speaks of the violence and racism of Algerian society, the rejection of blacks and of those who are Other. Vast historical novel, From Morne-des-Esses to Djebel balance between Martinique, mainland France and Algeria. In these orderly back-and-forths, a tragedy emerges from which none of the characters will emerge unscathed.
Raphaël Confiant’s language also offers a kaleidoscope of Creole, Arabic, Berber, all held in an efficient and fluid narration. Interview.
Le Point Afrique: Why did you choose to approach this approach to the Algerian war via the West Indies?
Raphaël Confident: The Algerian war is well forgotten in the West Indies when there were hundreds of Martinican soldiers, active or called up, who took part in it. Fanon’s image overshadowed all these soldiers who unfortunately were not heard. I wanted to show what is behind the big image of Fanon. We can still see them at the monuments to the dead on November 11, July 14, the jacket covered with medals gleaned in Algeria. Nobody really knows in Martinique under what conditions they obtained them. In reality, they gleaned them under the same conditions as the French troops. My sources are historical, but are mostly human. So I met these men. Most do not regret having participated in this war and believe they have done their duty. There were very few deserters from Martinique. Whether they had remorse or regrets afterwards, I do not know, because they did not express them to me. But I have met professional soldiers, not conscripts. The latter, in France in particular, were subsequently able to express their rejection of this war.
You open the book with a horrific scene of a mass rape followed by a mass massacre committed by French soldiers in an Algerian village. Why ?
I did not invent this scene. I wanted to open the book on a real fact to dive into colonial violence. I could have related the discovery of the soldiers of the bay of Algiers, the whiteness of the city. But it would have been an idyllic exotic postcard. I used the biographies of French soldiers who served in Algeria. I searched whole months in these books. Among these books, the book of a soldier from Normandy who recounts this scene. I was amazed. I saw all the colonial violence there. More broadly, many of the scenes reported are not invented. When one of the suspects is thrown over the helicopter, I did not invent this fact reported by one of the witnesses I met.
Read also The documentary “Fanon, yesterday, today” at the cinema
You follow the trajectory of three characters, Cabont, Martineau and Béraud. Are they archetypes of positions that may have been taken during this war?
I was inspired by the trajectory of three people who were in Algeria during this war. One of them is still alive. I got to know these people and, over the past few years, when I already had the idea of writing this novel, through contact with them, I was able to learn about their stay in Algeria, their participation in the war. These three characters do indeed represent archetypes. There is the one who carries out orders in the army, who is happy and does not ask himself too many questions, who is a good French soldier. Then, the one who is in the French army and who ends up going to the FLN side. And finally the Martinican student in Paris who is mobilized and hesitates to desert or not. He ends up deserting.
You describe the social and family environment of these three characters well. Is it to underline that this environment had an influence on their positioning in Algeria?
Each of these characters comes from a particular social background where the relationship with France is different. The origin of the soldiers could not fail to play on the relationship with the Algerian. Arriving in this Algerian society, a new relationship to the Other is created, but this relationship to otherness is necessarily formatted by social origin. Officer Cabont comes from a remote Martinican countryside called Le Morne-des-Esses, his mother is a farm worker, cutting sugar cane. Martineau has a mulatto bourgeois lawyer father. And finally Dany comes from a socially mixed family. We must also take into account the ethnic aspect. Some West Indians could pass for Algerians, which induces a different relationship to Algerian colonial society. The one who is black is immediately experienced by the Algerian as a foreigner while the mixed West Indian could blend in with the population.
Read also Literature: the picaresque fever of Raphaël Confiant
Did the trauma to slavery that each of these characters carry differently also structured their understanding of the Algerian question?
In their day, the issue of slavery was taboo. It was not put on the public square in the West Indies until the 1980s. Even before, the very word slavery was taboo. Families like the school did not teach this story. But that does not prevent the stigma of slavery from being there. The relationship between the large white landowners, or béké, and the mass of the population is the mark of slavery. The relations of slavery subsist in reality. When these soldiers arrive in Algeria, they cannot fail to see that the pieds-noirs correspond in their great majority to the bekés. They observe the same dichotomy that exists in Martinique. If the word “slavery” is not pronounced, the impression of colonial domination is obvious to these French soldiers.
You show that, in the army, racism is virulent. However, the Martinican characters do not seem to react to the racist remarks they are subjected to …
Caribbean society is an extremely racialized society. In Creole, we have terms to designate each skin color, even the most invisible to foreign eyes. We are also used to racial contempt. When we are used to this racialization of human relationships, we no longer pay attention to racist contempt.
But did these soldiers think they found in the army the illusion of real equality or real citizenship? On the contrary, you show that within the army a colonial division is also taking place …
We must distinguish the soldiers from the officers. The two characters leave Saint-Cyr. Even the most ill-disposed French soldier towards blacks knows they are officers. This is true for West Indian officers, but also North African or black Africans. But, at the level of the officers between them, there was a glass ceiling. The highest rank to which a West Indian could claim was lieutenant-colonel. You could have fought all kinds of wars, the rank ended there. Racism was manifested there too. We cannot deny that a West Indian soldier who arrives in Algeria has the impression of finding his own society. The more aware of them could not help but be confused, even though the majority of them said they had done “their duty”.
Read also Raphaël Confiant: “Fanon’s work sends Algeria back to failure”
In an Algerian context, did these West Indian soldiers find in the Algerians more despised than they in the colonial hierarchy?
Absolutely. This is because we are in the ethnic hierarchy of West Indian society. When the West Indian soldier arrives in Algeria, he is in a superior position compared to the Algerian. From that moment on, his behavior towards the Algerian is no longer the same. He can only with difficulty fraternize with an “inferior”. Very few have been able to do so. The cultural and religious barrier has also played its part.
But you also show that Algerian society is also crossed by this Berber-Arab racism, negrophobia and antagonism …
I wanted to give an uncompromising image of Algerian society. It is obviously under fire from the French army and colonization, but it was not a question of angelizing it. In this Algerian society where blacks also live, the latter are perceived in a pejorative way. But in the same way that the black is perceived in a pejorative way in Martinique. Martinicans have no lesson in anti-racism to teach Algerians. The Algerian says “kahlouch” (black), but this corresponds to a form of racialism in Martinican society. Anyway, I didn’t want to angelize the victim. Abuses have been committed on a society that is not angelic. But are there angelic societies?
You do not hypothesize that the racism of Algerian society is only the result of colonial racism …
I would rather speak of racialism, because if 1.5 million Europeans were enslaved in the Barbarians, they were white. Cervantes was a slave in Algiers for three years. Racialism also existed in Arab-Islamic. The Arab-Muslim practiced slavery towards both white and black populations. It cannot be compared to Gobineau’s racism, to European racism. Moreover, if black Africa also adopted Islam, it is because blacks understood that it was enough for them to convert to Islam to stop being slaves. In the European system, in the Antilles for example, you cannot stop being a slave. Unless the master, out of kindness, freed the slave, which was very rare.
Read also Tierno Monénembo: “This novel is a eulogy to Algeria”
You mention the figure of Fanon. Your characters discover his work, but through these writings on Algeria. Why ?
do not forget that Black skin, white masks, which remains the only book devoted by Fanon to Martinique, was released in Paris in 1952 and is obviously not distributed in the West Indies and does not have much echo in France either. The books perceived as communist, socialist or revolutionary, those of the publisher of Maspero in particular, were not ordered in the Antilles. We suppose that it was on the injunction of the prefecture. Even Césaire’s books were hard to find. I was a high school student at the time, I can assure you that no bookstore in Fort-de-France could find Notebook of a return to the native country by Césaire. So Fanon’s book a fortiori was nowhere to be found. These West Indian soldiers in 1954 knew nothing about Fanon. They find out through his articles in El Mujahedin or his action for Algerian independence.
You yourself have known post-independence Algeria. Did it help you write this novel?
I lived there at the time of Boumedienne. It was the Algiers Mecca of revolutionaries, in the words of Amilcar Cabral, who said that when you are a Muslim you go to Mecca and that when you are revolutionary you go to Algiers. I lived in Algiers where the PLO, the IRA, the Black Panthers met, with absolutely extraordinary revolutionary effervescence in Algiers. It was an enchanted break, coming out of a fierce war and before a bloody civil war.
In Algiers, I understood that Martinican society was nothing special. We Antilleans tend to believe that our society is special because of slavery and deportation from Africa. But I also saw in Algiers another form of particularity and complexity. It allowed me to understand my own society.
Read also Todd Shepard: “In France, the figure of the Arab man is obsessive”
How do you rate the hirak? Do you find there something of this revolutionary spirit?
Yes, but in a different way. This youth is extraordinary. She is peaceful and determined, but, above all, she detaches herself from the myths of the past. The FLN has capitalized too much on this liberation war without doing anything to create a more just society. Without denying this past, this youth looks more at the future than the past. She impresses me by her openness to the world, by her calm. The hirak is a hope, finally.
Basically, doesn’t all your work question the presence of Africa in Martinique, but also of Martinique in Africa?
The image of Africa remains tenuous in Martinique among the population, despite some pan-Africanist movements. Césaire had tried to densify this African part of Martinican society. Like other writers. Africa remains unspoken for the population. It is important for a writer to revive this relationship with Africa. Martinique would gain by stabilizing identity, because we live in a kind of unbearable identity uncertainty. Reconciling ourselves with all parts of ourselves would help to make us more serene about the challenges we have to face. However, serenity is the least present thing in our society because of our history. We are made of multiple cultural contributions on an African background, and that remains difficult to manage. Each ethnic group takes refuge in a so-called unique identity. However, this does not exist in Martinique. We also have a part of India, an indigenous Caribbean, European part. It is so much easier to inhabit one identity than several. But no one lives in a single identity.
* “From Morne-des-Esses to Djebel”, by Raphaël Confiant (Caribéditions).