Banned in the author’s native Algeria, this groundbreaking novel is based on a true story and inspired by the work of Primo Levi.
The Schiller brothers, Rachel and Malrich, couldn’t be more dissimilar. They were born in a small village in Algeria to a German father and an Algerian mother and raised by an elderly uncle in one of the toughest ghettos in France. But the similarities end there. Rachel is a model immigrant—hard working, upstanding, law-abiding. Malrich has drifted. Increasingly alienated and angry, a bleak future seems inevitable for him. But when Islamic fundamentalists murder the young men’s parents in Algeria the destinies of both brothers are transformed. Rachel discovers the shocking truth about his family and buckles under the weight of the sins of his father, a former SS officer. Now Malrich, the outcast, will have to face that same awful truth alone.
“The German Mujahid deals with the fine line between the destructive power wielded by Islamic fundamentalism today and the power of another movement that left an indelible mark on history: Nazism.” —Haaretz (Israel)
“With extraordinary eloquence, Sansal condemns both the [Algerian] military and the Islamic fundamentalists; he decries that Algeria crippled by trafficking, religion, bureaucracy, the culture of illegality, of coups, and of clans, career apologists, the glorification of tyrants, the love of flashy materialism, and the passion for rants.” —Lire (France)
“The German Mujahid, winner of the RTL-Lire Prize for fiction, is a marvelous, devilishly well-constructed novel.” —L’Express (France)
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Rachel died six months ago. He was thirty-three. One day, about two years ago, something in his head just snapped and he started tearing around all over the place — France, Algeria, Germany, Austria, Poland, Turkey, Egypt. Between trips, he'd hole up in a corner and read, think and write stuff — and he'd rage. He lost his health. Then his job. Then his mind. Ophélie walked out on him. One night he killed himself. It was this year, 24 April 1996, at about 11 P.M.
I didn't know about any of this shit. I was a kid, I was seventeen and when that something in his head snapped, I was into all sorts. I didn't see much of Rachel, I steered clear, he was doing my head in with all his preachifying. I don't like to say it, I mean, he was my brother, but when someone goes all self-righteous on you like that, it does your head in. He had his life, I had mine. He had this big job with this giant American company, he had the girl, the house, the car, the credit cards, every second of his day accounted for; me, I was zoning round H24 with the dregs of the estate. The H24 Estate is classed SUA-1 — Sensitive Urban Area, Category 1. There's no room to breathe, you stumble out of one fuckup into another. One morning, Ophélie phones me to tell me what's happened. She'd stopped by the house to check on her ex. "I had this feeling," she said. Momo — he's the son of the halal butcher — he lent me his moped and I bombed down there. There were people milling round everywhere — cops, paramedics, neighbours, rubberneckers. Rachel was in the garage sitting on the ground, his back to the wall, legs stretched out, chin on his chest, mouth open. He looked like he was asleep. His face was black with soot. He'd been there all night, bathing in exhaust fumes. He was wearing these creepy striped pajamas I'd never seen before and his hair was all shaved off like a convict or something. It was freaky. I didn't react, didn't say anything. I couldn't take it in. This paramedic says, "Is he your brother?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "That's it? That's all you've got to say?" I just shrugged and headed into the sitting room.
Ophélie was in there with Com'Dad — he's the area police commissioner. She was crying, he was taking notes. When he saw me, he said, "Come here a minute." He asked me some stuff. I told him I didn't know anything. This was true — I didn't see much of Rachel. I had a feeling he was stressed about something, but I just thought, he's got his shit, I've got mine. It sounds pathetic when you put it like that, but that's life, we've got suicides all the time on the estate. When it happens you're like, What the fuck? You're bummed for a couple of days and a week later you've forgotten all about it. You think, That's life, and you get on with things. This time, it was my brother, my big brother, I had to get my head around it.
I had no idea what had happened to him, I couldn't imagine how far he had come, how far I had still to go. I ran through every possibility, I thought about it for days — girl trouble, money trouble, trouble with the cops, an incurable disease, every shitty thing that can go wrong in life — but I never thought of this. Dear God almighty, not this. I don't think anyone in the world has been through what we've been through.
After the funeral, Ophélie took off for Canada, to her cousin Cathy who got married over there to some fur trader who's rolling in it. She gave me the keys to their house, asked me to look after it. She said, "Let's just see how things go." When I asked her why Rachel killed himself, she said, "I don't know, he never told me anything." I believed her. I knew just from looking at her standing there shaking that she didn't know anything, Rachel never told anybody anything.
So there I was all alone in Rachel's big house, feeling pathetic. I was beating myself up about the fact that I hadn't been around when Rachel lost it. A whole month I spent going round in circles. I felt like shit and I couldn't even cry. Raymond, Momo and a couple of other mates came round and hung out with me. They'd swing by in the afternoon, we'd talk about nothing much, knock back a couple of beers. That's when I got the job with Raymond's dad, Monsieur Vincent, working in this garage he's got called Rustbuckets' Delight. I was making minimum wage plus tips. I could deal with being on my own. The best thing about work is you forget everything else.
A month later Com'Dad phoned me at the garage and said: "I need you to come down the station, I've got something for you." I went down after work. He sat there staring at me for a bit, clicking his tongue, then he opens this drawer, takes out a plastic bag and shoves it across the desk. I pick it up. Inside, there are four battered notebooks. Com'Dad says to me, "It's your brother's diary. We don't need it anymore." Then he pokes his fat finger right in my face and says: "You should read it. Might knock some sense into you. Your brother was a good guy." Then he starts talking about this and that, the same stuff he's always banging on about: the estate, the future, France, the straight and narrow. I listened to him, shifting from one foot to the other. Then he looks up at me and says, "Go on, get out of here!"
As soon as I started reading Rachel's diary, I felt sick. It was like my insides were burning up. I had to hold my head in my hands just to stop it exploding, I felt like screaming. On every page, I thought, I don't believe this. Then, when I'd finished, I suddenly felt calm, like I was frozen inside — all I wanted to do was die. I felt ashamed to be alive. A week later, I realised that this whole thing, Rachel's story, my story, was all about papa's past, I was going to have to live it for myself, follow the same path, ask myself the same questions, and, where my father and Rachel had failed, I had to try to survive. I felt like this was all too much for me. But I also felt, and I don't know why, I had to tell the world. I knew it was all ancient history, but still, life doesn't change and what had happened to us could happen again.
Before I start, I need to tell you some stuff about us. Rachel and me were born back in the bled, in Algeria, in some godforsaken village in the middle of nowhere called Aïn Deb. When I was little, uncle Ali told me it Aïn Deb meant "The Donkey's Well." I used to laugh, picturing this donkey standing on its hind legs, rubbing its belly, bravely standing guard over the well.
Our parents were Aïcha and Hans Schiller; maman was Algerian, papa was German. Rachel came to France in 1970 when he was seven. His name was actually Rachid Helmut but people shortened it to Rachel and it stuck. I came here in 1985 when I was eight. I'm Malek Ulrich, and that turned into Malrich and stuck too. We lived with uncle Ali, he's a good man, he's got seven kids of his own and a heart the size of a truck. The way he sees it, the more kids around the house, the better. He was from back in the bled too, he'd been friends with papa but he was one of the first people to leave and go to France. He worked every lousy job going and managed to build a life for himself here. He's a typical chibani — an old soldier — he doesn't say much. I made his life hell, but he'd never complain, he'd just smile and say, "One day, you'll be a man." His own sons disappeared one by one: four of them are dead, illness and work accidents, the other three are out there somewhere, working on building sites in Algeria, the Persian Gulf, Libya, going wherever the work is, chasing after life. You could say they're missing in action: they never come home, they never write, they never phone. They could be dead for all he knows. Now I'm the only one uncle Ali has left. I never saw my father again. I never went back to Algeria and he never came to France. He didn't want us going back to the bled, he'd say: "Some day, maybe, we'll see ..." Maman came three times for a fortnight and spent the whole time crying. It's fucked up, we couldn't even talk to each other. Maman only spoke Berber and we'd be babbling away in whatever random Arabic we picked up on the estate and bits of German cobbled together. Maman never spoke much German and the best we could do was string together what little we remembered, so the three of us would just sit round smiling, saying, Ja, ja, gut, labesse, azul, Ça va?, genau, cool, et toi? Rachel went back once, when he came to take me to France. Papa never left the village. It's weird, but family stuff is always weird, there's so much you don't know, you don't think about. After school, where he studied German out of family loyalty and English because he had to, Rachel went to the Institute of Engineering in Nantes. I didn't get the chance, I never got past my first year in secondary school. They accused me of breaking into the principal's office and I got expelled. I made my own way, I hung around the streets, took a couple of courses and a few part-time jobs, did a bit of dealing, went to the mosque, wound up in court. Me and my mates were like fish in a river, sometimes we swam with the current, sometimes against. We got busted all the time, but we were always let off with a caution. We made the most of the fact we were too young to get banged up. I got hauled in front of every youth-offender judge, and in the end everyone forgot about me. I'm not complaining, what's done is done. It's fate, mektoub, the old Arabs on the estate call it. Me and my mates would say shit like that all the time: Adversity makes the best teacher, danger makes the man, a man gets his balls by using his fists.
At twenty-five, Rachel got French citizenship. He threw this big fuck-off party. Ophélie and her mother — a hard-core cheerleader for the National Front — had no reason now to put off the wedding. Algerian and German, maybe, but he's French now and an engineer to boot, they told anyone who asked. Another party. Has to be said, Rachel and Ophélie had been together since they were kids and her mother Wenda had run Rachel out of the house plenty of times; but she saw him grow up to be serious and well-mannered. Besides, she couldn't really complain, Rachel had blue eyes and blonde hair, Ophélie was the one with dark hair and brown eyes. Rachel had inherited papa's German genes and Ophélie's Russian blood did the rest. Their life was like some cheesy music box, all you had to do was wind it up and it played. Half the time I was jealous of them, the other half I wanted to kill them just to put them out of their misery. To keep on good terms, I steered clear. Any time I went round their house, they'd flap around like there was a storm threatening the nest. Ophélie was always two steps ahead of me and she'd go round afterwards to make sure nothing was missing.
After he got his citizenship, Rachel said, "I'm going to sort out your papers too, you can't go on like this, like a free electron." I shrugged: "Whatever, do what you like." So he did. One day he shows up on the estate and gets me to sign some papers and a year later he shows up again and says, "Congratulations, you're one of us now, your papers have come through." He said his boss pulled a few strings. He took me to dinner in some big fancy restaurant in Paris near Nation. It wasn't to celebrate me getting my papers, it was to give me a lecture about all the responsibilities that went with it. So, as soon as I'd had dessert, I was like, "Later," and I was out of there.
Monsieur Vincent sorted things out for me, he gave me a month's paid leave. It was pretty good of him really, I'd only ever worked two days here, three days there, and there was a clapped out old wreck I hadn't even finished working on. He sorted things out with social services too, since they were forking out for the apprenticeship.
I needed to hole up, to be on my own. I'd got to the point where the only way to deal with the world is to go off and hide and wallow in your pain. I read Rachel's diary over and over. This shit was so huge, so dark, I couldn't see any way out. Then suddenly, I started writing like a lunatic, me who's always hated writing. Then I started running round like a headless chicken. What I went through I wouldn't wish on anyone.CHAPTER 2
It was hard for me to read Rachel's diary. His French isn't like mine. The dictionary wasn't much help, every time I looked something up it just referred me to something else. French is a real minefield, every word is a whole history linked to every other. How is anyone supposed to remember it all? I remembered something Monsieur Vincent used to say to me: "Education is like tightening a wheel nut, too much is too much and not enough is not enough." But I learned a lot, and the more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
The whole thing started with the eight o'clock news on Monday, 25 April 1994. One tragedy leading to another leading to another, the third the worst tragedy of all time. Rachel wrote:
I've never felt any particular attachment to Algeria, but every night, at eight o'clock on the dot, I'd sit down in front of the television waiting for news from the bled. There's a war on there. A faceless, pitiless, endless war. So much has been said about it, so many terrible things, that I came to believe that some day or other, no matter where we were, no matter what we did, this horror was bound to touch us. I feared as much for this distant country, for my parents living there, as I did for us, here, safe from it all.
In his letters, papa only ever talked about the village, his humdrum routine, as if the village were a bubble beyond time itself. Gradually, in my mind, the whole country became reduced to that village. That was how I saw it: an ancient village from some dimly remembered folk tale; the villagers have no names, no faces, they never speak, never go anywhere; I saw them standing, crouching, lying on mats or sitting on stools in front of closed doors, cracked whitewashed walls; they move slowly, with no particular goal; the streets are narrow, the roofs low, the minarets oblique, the fountains dry; the sand extends in vertiginous waves from one end of the horizon to the other; once a year clouds pass in the blue sky like hooded pilgrims mumbling to themselves, they never stop here but march on to sacrifice themselves to the sun or hurl themselves into the sea; sometimes they expiate their sins over the heads of the villagers, and then it's like the biblical flood; here and there I hear dogs barking at nothing, the caravans are long gone but as everywhere in these forsaken countries, skeletal buses shudder along the rutted roads like demons belching smoke; I see naked children running — like shadows swathed in dust — too fast to know what game they are playing; pursued by some djinn; laughter and tears and screams following behind, fading to a vague hum in this air suffused with light and ash, merging with the echoes. And the more I told myself that all this was just some movie playing in my head, a ragbag of nostalgia, ignorance and clichés seen on the news, the more the scene seemed real. Papa and maman, on the other hand, I could still picture quite clearly, hear their voices, still smell them, and yet I knew that this too was false, that these were inventions of my mind, sacred relics from my childhood memory making them younger with each passing year. I reminded myself that life is hard in the old country, all the more so in a godforsaken village, and then this tranquil veil would tear and I would see an old man, half-paralysed, trying to stay standing to surprise me, and a hunchbacked old woman supporting herself against the flaking wall as she struggled to her feet to greet me, and I would think, this is papa, this is maman, this is what time and hard living have done to them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The German Mujahid"
Copyright © 2008 Editions Gallimard, Paris.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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What People are Saying About This
"The German Mujahid, winner of the RTL-Lire Prize for fiction, is a marvelous, devilishly well- constructed novel . . . Terror, doubt, revolt, guilt, and despair-an entire range of sentiments is admirably depicted in this book."-L'Express(France)
"With extraordinary eloquence, Sansal condemns both the [Algerian] military and Islamic fundamentalists; he decries that Algeria crippled by trafficking, religion, bureaucracy, the culture of illegality, of coups, and of clans, career apologists, the glorification of tyrants, the love of flashy materialism, and the passion for rants."- Lire (France)
"The German Mujahid deals with the fine line between the destructive power wielded by Islamic fundamentalism today and the power of another movement that left an indelible mark on history: Nazism."-Haaretz (Israel)