Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A savage war of reviews

My recent reading of The Day of the Jackal has led me to A Savage War of Peace, Alistair Horne's history of France's Algerian War.

The vast majority of the book’s free customer reviews on Amazon are five-star, but I was most interested in the two two-star reviews. Here's an excerpt from the first:
“Alistair Horne … is first and foremost hopelessly biased in favor of the Algerians.”
Here’s one from the second:
“This epic work … remains a remarkably racist work loved by State Department officials and neocons alike … Alistair Horne describes in gory detail atrocities committed by the FLN, or Algerian nationalist rebels, while skimming over far worse atrocities committed by the nice white-guy French.”
See also: Albert Camus, Yasmina Khadra, Rachid Taha

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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31 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I can't comment on the book because I havent read it but as someone who has been trolled on Amazon because of my alleged political agenda I'm leery of those accusations.

I think an interesting alternative history could be thought up around the 1961 coup. What if the French generals in Algeria had somehow gotten control of the French A bomb and blackmailed De Gaulle? Or what if they'd successfully killed De Gaulle? Would Algeria have become a S African/Rhodesian style rogue state, could it have been partitioned into a Pied Noir country and an Arab nation? Or would the chaos and murder only have gotten worse? Fanatical Legionnaires with an A bomb certainly is a scary prospect.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If they'd killed De Gaulle, Frederick Forsythe's career would have turned out differently, not to mention Camus'.

I don't know if partition would have worked; the advantage would have been too strongly on the pied noir side. Horne does invoke South Africa in his discussion of the pieds noirs. (His opening chapters are a fine introduction to Algeria.) So, my quess would be South African/Rhodesian-style rogue state. Interesting to speculate about what sorts of relations such a state would eventually have had with France, given that the generals proclaimed themselves patriots and that the lower-classes among the European population were heavily Spanish and Italian.

Naturally I thought of trolling and sock puppets when I read the two-star reviews. But each is a little better thought-out than what I think of as most sock-puppetry (Well, the first one is, at any rate.) Each does take care to give the book some props, and notice that they gave the book two stars rather than one. I took the two reviews as andorsement of the book. (It also drew something like fifty five-star reviews and fourteen four-stars--no threes--so it's safe to say the book is well regarded.)

In re alternate histories, which I know you like, a former teacher of mine won an award or two for a book called, I think, "Pacific Empire," about a world in which Japan won the Pacific war in World War II.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I think I've read most of Horne's books and they're all excellent. It doesn't surprise me at all that he got some savage, but literate, reviews. Rightists of various stripes are hyper-sensitive to what they perceive as attacks on their gods and react accordingly. Case in point: I did a review a while ago of Paul Preston's The Spanish Holocaust. I got an email from Preston thanking me for "getting" his book. I didn't understand what he meant until I saw the 1 and 2 star reviews on Amazon which attacked him as a leftist because he dared to point out that Franco's regime engaged in genocide. Who'd have thought there were still Franco fans out there? And in case you're interested, here's a combined film review I did of The Battle of Algiers and The Day of the Jackal. They make an amazing double bill if you watch them back to back.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Horne got one savage but sort-of literate review from each side, which was interesting.

Thanks for the review. I will take a look, though maybe I should watch The Battle of Algiers first, and read a bit about the war before that. Maybe I'll watch the movie after I finish reading Horne.

One thing I like about A Savage War for Peace is Horne's effort to offer a picture of the country before he starts detailing the war. I feel like whatever his politics are, he makes a real effort to understand Algeria -- and post-war France.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

What strikes me as germane about your current reading interests are the post-colonial critical perspectives that we can bring to bear on the subjects. While I am not one of those white European guilt folks, I remain sensitive to the damage Europeans and Americans have done to countries that perhaps should not have been targets for European-American expansion. My current reading (for a class that I am teaching) is not a crime novel but a Pulitzer prize winning play, Ruined, by Lynn Nottage. The play presents the ruination of people and country because of many factors in the inappropriately named country, Democratic Republic of Congo. We cannot unwind the clock, but it is interest nevertheless to imagine a world in which Europeans and Americans never intruded upon African and Asian countries. Yes, colonial intrusion has a long, long history, but almost always the colonized region becomes the loser. Algeria, for example, has a tortured history--about which you are reading--and the French ought to have known better than to intrude upon a culture that would have been better off on its own. Also, as you are interested in Irish crime fiction, we all known the guilt that falls upon England for its ugly involvement in Ireland. Clearly, post-colonial situations are target-rich environments for crime writers. Readers, though, perhaps overlook or misunderstand that deeper issues in these kinds of crime novels. Well, end of post-colonial rant.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: You mentioned Ireland. The specter of pieds noirs digging in and fighting to maintain their position in Algeria has certain parallels with Northern Ireland.

In Algeria's case, it be easier to imagine how things could have been different. What were the French thinking, for example, when they made Algeria a part of metropolitan France rather than a colony, as in Tunisia? Or why set up democratic institutions in which the Muslim population is underrepresented?

April 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

You speak of Muslim populations being under-represented in democratic institutions. My "reading" of recent history suggests that indigenous North African people are for the most part a tribal culture, and why would the "enlightened" white folk of Europe have the hubris to impose democratic and/or capitalistic paradigms upon cultures that are not interested in those "advancements"? And you wonder why colonized regions have become such tinder boxes! People do not care much for change, especially when it is imposed willy-nilly upon them by self-righteous outsiders. We do not like here, and they do not like it there.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think the Arabs in the cities were probably more citified than the Berbers in the mountains. I do know from my recent reading that there was liberal as well as revolutionary and religious opposition in Algeria, so some of the Muslim population would presumably have been amenable to democratic institutions.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Well, with all things considered, including my basic political leanings, I surprise myself in my later years that I have become such a "rabid" anti-colonialist. Too much arrogance from outsiders ruined too many places.

In the many places I have visited--Philippines, Singapore, Guam, Diego Garcia, Iceland (perhaps the only exception), Kenya, Scotland, Australia, British Columbia, Sri Lanka, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Bahamas, Mexico, virtually everywhere in the U.S., and a few other places--the story is the same: outsiders (intruders with hubristic agendas) changed everything, and hardly ever for the better.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, there's an argument to made that "We should have left those folks the hell alone" is a true-blue conservative belief. But, as France learned, putting that particular genie back in the bottle is not easily done.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

No, the genie never goes back in the bottle, and the past never changes (although the "interpretations" change quite a bit). As I mentioned a few days ago, Santyana cautioned us against ignoring history and repeating the mistakes. Though the specific applications of colonization and imperialism have changed, the same mistakes are, in fact, being made. So, if I understand you, I guess this all makes me quite the neo-con. So be it.

Now, it back to reading and preparing for tomorrow's classes. BTW, did I ever tell you that I once taught a literature course that focused on detective fiction? The students enjoyed it. The English department chair (a spoil sport medievalist who loves Chaucer more than ought to be considered normal) was more than a little annoyed. Hence, no more detective fiction classes.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As for repeating mistakes, Horne does cite one French company that had massive holdings in Algeria. Its operations benefited neither Algerians, who were employed in only small numbers in low-paying work, nor France, since the revenue went into proivate rather than government coffers.

Don't neocons believe in active promotion of American interests abroad? That could well involve repeating the same mistakes, couldn't it? So I'm not sure I'd think of you as a neocon.

Back when I was in school, I think detective fiction found its way into the curriculum via a course in American studies. I don't think the English department offered anything in that area.

But, by God, I can think of crime novels that would make worthwhile reading in courses on Italian history, just to name one. And Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob novels, which he says he regarded as mere "railway station books" (maybe he meant something like what Graham Greene did by "entertainments") might make good collateral reading in a course on post-colonial and post-post-colonial Algeria.

April 17, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The comments on this website are always so interesting. To discuss Algeria, I think one has to go back to the Barbary Pirates, and the horrors of the Mediterranean slave trade to find the rationale for the French Invasion in 1830. (Even our Marine Hymn refers to the Barbary Pirates in the words "shores of Tripoli")Algeria is huge and wasn't made up of one "Algerian" culture. There were Arab and Berber Christians and Muslims and Jews, urban and rural dwellers to name a few parts of the whole making the situation in Algeria extremely complicated. The pied-noirs were a special "problem" because mostly they weren't French (the French, unlike other European countries did not have an excess population that could be used for colonization) so the return to France of the pied-noirs would not have brought them "home." The metropolitan French who were going through difficult economic times were hostile to helping these non-French French. I think Mr. Horne did an effective job of detailing events in a society much more diverse than we frequently give it credit for being.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Colonization, in general, throughout history, has less to do with population transfer than commercial exploitation. Yes, populations often move in, but the economic links to the colonizing country remain the key to understanding the growth of colonization (starting in the 16th century and continuing in somewhat different forms in the 21st century).

Odd robot word to ponder: tdangeR

April 17, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And Yasmina Khadra's Brahim Llob novels are marvels!!!!

April 17, 2013  
Blogger verymessi said...

Don't neocons believe in active promotion of American interests abroad? That could well involve repeating the same mistakes,

Hi Peter,

Except they are not mistakes! They are logical and predictable. They happen all the time, they are happening right now and will continue to happen as long as the US-or insert whatever former power you want- feels its right to control the world.

If it happens once or twice and is a deviation from past well documented actions, then I can see the invasions,bombings, coups, death squads, backing of dictators, renditions etc as being mistakes. But that is not the case. So they are not mistakes. These actions are very logical from the view point of the hegemon.

This is also very much a bi-partisan affair. It is not just neo-cons that launch illegal wars and bomb other countries as they see fit.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, thanks for the compliment and the comment. I mentioned that Horne does a good job of trying to get readers to understand the country. His introductory chapters outline many of the points you mentioned. He also mentions in passing that Algeria has been prey to invasions since many centuries before anyone dreamed of Islam: The Carthangians and the Romans, for instance. Even amid the French influx, there were two waves, Horne says, the first something like the Mariel boatlift: criminals and others who were not making it in France, and a later wave of hard-working Alsatians (peope from Alsace, not dogs). So yes, he does a fine job of conveying the diversity of the country. He also outlines a bit of the history from 1830 until 1954, though full treatment of those topics would require books of their own. But the introduction is wonderful.

He knows how to tell a story, too. He begins with a very brief description that justaposes the end of World War II in France and the Setif massacres of 1945, a macabre tease for the events of the 1954-1963 war. Then comes a few chapters of history (and antrhopolgy) to explains how affairs came to be so violent. That's where I am now in the book. And only then will he relate the events of the war. So he really does try to make the war a part of a larger story of the country and its people.

My verfication number is 211, the death year of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, born in precisely that part of the world under discussion here to an Italian mother and a father of Berber descent.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

What's even more interesting than the Brajim Llob novels is the brief passage in Khadra's memoirs where he explains why he decided to write in French rather than Arabic.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., commercial exploitation certainly would have had great motivating power in the days when kingdoms gave the rights to all those trading companies that wound up exercising governing power. The idea of a private or quasi-private company exercising such is power is probably the idea from the age of colonization that is most foreign today, at least to we nonspecialists.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

VM, rather than mistakes, then, let's call them deliberate, well thought-out, perhaps predictable policies and practices that come back to haunt those who made them. In any case, though I am by no means anything like even moderately knowledgeable about colonial history, it's easy to see why Algeria is a special case, to some degree.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous and others: Forgive the typographical error above. I meant 1954-1962 war, of course, not 1954-1963.

April 17, 2013  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I like the analogy with Northern Ireland and I think it works. N.Ireland around 2025 (the time when according to current demographic trends N.I. will be a majority Catholic province) could very well look like Algeria in, say, 1960. I foresee a lot of bloodshed and as far as I'm aware no one is wargaming solutions, everyone's just hoping that the worst wont happen.

April 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And by 2025, all the Peace Prize winners will be safely doddering or in their graves. Tony Blair as NI's Jimmy Carter but with power, because he straddles the sectarian divide these days?

What will the UK do when Northern Ireland becomes majority Catholic? Who will the UK's De Gaulle be? And are any up and coming future leaders on either side of the divide thinking ahead?

I think back to one of Garbhan Downey's books, where he has a Catholic pol from Northern Ireland tell a pol from the Republic something like "Look, I know you lot would just as soon have us go away, tie us in a sack and throw us in the sea."

April 18, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must have “internalized” knowledge gained from Horne’s book for I didn’t remember reading in his book, the concepts I mentioned . Thank you for the review. Time for a reread. Horne excels in pointing out Algeria’s special case and the complications that made it so. Maybe the lack of understanding about all these special conditions makes writing detective novels about “the Algerian question” so difficult. Except for “The Day of the Jackal” I can’t think of any English language book that makes the attempt.

When Horne’s book came out, I was teaching a class in Literature of the Maghreb to students fluent in French, Arabic and English. We read parts of it together. The students, a generation removed from the situation with their family histories clearly in mind, were impressed with Mr. Horne’s fairness and the breadth, depth and complications of their own Algerian history. And like M Khadra have found their home in France and the French language. Ironic isn’t it?

April 18, 2013  
Blogger verymessi said...

VM, rather than mistakes, then, let's call them deliberate, well thought-out, perhaps predictable policies and practices that come back to haunt those who made them.

yes, "Blowback." Chalmers Johnson wrote a good book on the topic with this name.

Todays trusted partner and ally is tomorrows "next Hitler" or terrorist and vice versa. Saddam Hussein being maybe the textbook example among many to choose from.

April 18, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks to your discussion, I have downloaded the Kindle version. These old eyes can't do NYRB's tiny print anymore. Horne refers often to two excellent circa 1960 French books translated into English that you might be able to find, Larteguy's the Centurions and The Praetorians, recommended to me by members of the French military. The viewpoint of the author is obvious but interesting none the less. However, maybe this makes for more than you wanted to know about the war in Algeria.

April 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, I am impressed that a class of such students should find the book fair and useful. Their reaction is a nice rebuttal to my two-star reviews, I'd say, whatever their family and social backgrounds were.

Yasmina Khadra, as fiercely as he may speak of the West's misunderstanding of the Islamic world, constitutes himself a critique of his own culture. He chose to write in French because when he was a schoolboy, his French teacher encouraged his writing while his Arabic teacher did not. I think the world needs more people like him.

April 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

VM, I think a number of Afghan warlords would fit into that category, too. And thanks for the "Blowback" suggestion.

April 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Anonymous, thanks for the suggestions. Horne makes a point--and here his journalist's training serves him well--of talking, and writing respectfully about, people on all sides. I would keep this in mind reading books recommended by members of the military or any other party to the war.

What my reading and this discussion makes want to do is visit North Africa. Algeria may be dicey for pleasure travel; these days, so maybe I could return to Tunisia and gaze over the border.

April 18, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My final comment for sure!!! Too, I have always wanted to visit Algeria, the only place on my travel list remaining unseen. Unfortunately my French friends of Algerian extraction say that on an American passport my visitation is not recommended. Bonne chance!!! The Tunisian/Algerian fence is still up.

April 18, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Nah, you can comment again if you want to.

You'll be able to tell from that link that I quite liked Tunisia, and I would certainly go back. Morocco would make a nice destination, too, I think.

April 18, 2013  

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