To Algeria With Love
Cécile Oumhani - 28/02/2011
Looking back on our past, many of us are left wondering what would have become of our lives if… Or what happened to those who stayed behind or chose to go off on their own after a painful breakup. But how many will actually search to find out? This could have been a nostalgic tale of regrets and speculations on the different paths human beings will take at a given moment.
Louise reminisces the early sixties when she left New York with a scholarship to go to France. She had grown up fascinated by her father’s stories of rebellion and past roaming with anarchists and socialists, also inheriting his unquenched thirst for justice. Louise was born in a large family, where she was her fond Uncle Max’s “little child”, “a direct translation from the Yiddish”. In fact when it comes to leaving for Europe, each of her uncles and aunts has recommendations about what she should read, whether it is better for her to learn French or Italian and what behaviour she should adopt in the presence of her potential suitors.
Cut off from her warm, lively relatives, she confronts the France of her imagination with reality; the book stalls by the Seine in Paris, what she calls the postcards but also the traces of recent World War II, the ongoing Algerian war of Independence. In a provincial town in the Alps, Louise meets Wally, an Algerian worker. “He worked fifty hours a week at that mysterious factory, on his feet among the heat, screech and metal dust…” Wally teaches her how to dance at a bal musette. He tells her about le foot and countless other things of everyday life. Her Aunt Nora had sent her a warning: “DON’T LET YOUR STUDIES INTERFERE WITH YOUR EDUCATION.” In fact, what she learns about France is through Wally: red wine should be drunk with bread and Camembert, De Gaulle’s wife is commonly referred to as tante Yvonne, Edith Piaf’s grandmother was Algerian.
The war of Independence is still raging and thousands of Algerians are in jail, Wally cannot tell her how many. In the French town where they live, divides are not only social but also racial. “The races didn’t seem to mix much either. To buy a tin of sardines or a Camembert; the grocer’s wife giggled knowingly, as if we were a risqué joke, a walking innuendo.”
But the novel spans a much longer period, introducing many other characters with different backgrounds, like Irene in Switzerland or Louise’s husband and children in New York or Aïssa and Amina. Years later, Louise is desperate to know what became of the son she gave Wally, after he took him to his family to be brought up. Lost a first time in the wake of Independence and Wally’s return home, her son is lost again in the events of 1988 Algeria that brutally crushed what had survived the stifling narrow-mindedness of colonial France. Louise is forever haunted with what was shattered by life on both sides as well as History.
If To Algeria with love is so brilliant and moving, this is undoubtedly because of its deep humanity. Suzanne Ruta intertwines passion, wit and lucidity in a powerful and gripping novel.
To Algeria with Love , Suzanne Ruta, Virago , 273 pages.
Suzanne Ruta was born and educated in New York City, author, translator and critic published in NY Times, Bookforum, Village Voice, Grand Street and many other American journals. Studied in France 1961-62 on a Fulbright grant. Lived for many years in Mexico, New Mexico, where she co-founded the immigrants rights group «Somos un Pueblo Unido» and lately in New York and S. Italy.
Short story collection Stalin in the Bronx , a NY Times notable book of the year. To Algeria with Love is her first novel.
It will be published in Italy by Einaudi in 2012 with title La Repubblica di Wally.
To Algeria with Love spans the early sixties in France to the years following September 2001 in New York. American author, Suzanne Ruta, agreed to answer our questions about what led her to write gripping novel about an American student and an Algerian worker during the war of independence. Her reflections about her novel as well as about the world we live in are thought- provoking and challenging.
“I once knew Algeria by heart. I had it from a direct source, temporarily located in France but honest, voluble and passionate.” This is how Wally is introduced in the novel.
After 9/11 for all the real horror, there was also a sigh of relief in certain quarters. (The White House?) After a ten year hiatus, the U.S. had an enemy again: the Islamist threat. Like the Soviet threat, it was totalitarian in nature and would take many decades and national resolve and enormous budgets to combat. Overnight our cold war pundits reinvented themselves as experts on the Muslim world. They didn’t read Arabic, they hadn’t been to Arab countries, but they had heard of Syed Qutb. They made him a household name.
Now even my slight contact with the Arab world, through Algerians I knew in France in the early sixties, convinced me this was nuts. I decided to write about the anti-Qutb. The Egyptian Qutb spent years in jail writing his treatises, he was tortured and later hanged. Wally, the hero of my novel, born in western Algeria in 1930, is out in the world. He has a wife, children, parents, brothers, a girlfriend, their son; he works in a factory fifty hours a week, he defends his dignity in small ways day by day, against others but also against his own flaws and deficiencies. He has no gift for speculative thought or “the big picture.” He’s not a combatant in the Algerian war of liberation. He’s a modest human being who longs to lead a quiet life and raise his children in hope and dignity. I called the first draft “The Algerian Dream.”
What made the encounter of Louise and Wally possible in the early sixties, she a young woman freshly arrived in France from New York and he, the Algerian worker?
“Algerian worker” is a misleading term. Reading Camus’ Le Premier Homme , that touching scene where the youngster’s teacher persuades the family to send him to the lycee, I thought of the thousands of Algerians who were denied such encouragement. In fact only 14% of Algerians had been in taught to read French by 1954! So yes, Wally is a worker in a French factory but he’s also a victim of colonial déclassement, with a great store of native intelligence, a passionate autodidact, eager to learn from everyone he meets. He keeps open house for foreign students in his shabby furnished room in a French provincial town. Louise, for him, has the cachet of her college education, her wide reading, which she takes for granted. Plus she’s cute and naïve and accessible, boy meets girl.
Both of course are outsiders in hostile France.
Louise, fresh from the family cocoon, is uncomfortable with the default mode of French discourse, a polite coolness that borders on scorn. Wally is the enemy and a target of racial epithets imbedded in the French language. Yet – familiar paradox - what binds this couple together, is their fascination with French language and pop culture, the wits and chansonniers of the 60’s. In fact without French they could not communicate at all.
Your novel recounts Louise’s heart rending separation from the son Wally gave her. Is this a statement about a cultural divide that could never be bridged?
I had no symbolism in mind. An “unbridgeable cultural divide” sounds too much like a precursor to the “ clash of civilizations” theories I refuse to take seriously. I was writing instead, about time and how we’re always out of synch with our best intentions. You could take sides between Wally and Louise, blame him for seducing and abandoning her, for taking her son and returning him to the larger tribe. Or you could blame her, silly naïve girl, for trifling with the powerful affections of a man from a country whose postwar poverty and chaos she can’t begin to imagine.
But I give the last word to a dead man who refuses to take sides.
“Life is short,” he – or if you like, his ghost, says. I have no wisdom beyond that: life goes by too fast, our understanding catches up with our acts, if at all, at a great distance.
That’s what Louise means when in the opening sentence of the book she says, “Forty years too late.” And even then the full consequences of her actions are not clear to her. They will be by the time the book is over.
So no symbolism, but maybe some agendas. Against torture. Against
the Iraq war. Iraq was being torn apart, we read the papers, we read the book length exposes denouncing Rumsfeld, Bush, Cheney, but what good did it do the people “on the ground” as we said -- war vocabulary that we all talk. At one point I wanted to call the novel Fraternité (that least examined of the republican triad) and arrange a reunion for Wally’s and Louise’s son with his American family. But in the end the awful gap – not cultural but historical – between the war at home and in Iraq, loomed uppermost in my thoughts. No happy endings.
Wally is much more than her first love. He does not only simply teach her everyday things like dancing. He also has a great influence on the way she will perceive the world.
Dancing is actually a big deal for Louise, raised in a melancholy Puritanical Jewish milieu, the bookish scholarship girl with no physical self confidence. She can’t even comb her hair properly, till Wally takes a hand.
In Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek , there is talk of people who turn what they eat into “work and good humor” That’s Wally, a man of the Mediterranean, Monsieur Beaufixe as Louise calls him. Dance is a part of his way of being in the world, relaxed and joyous, when circumstances allow. I would like to write a whole book about music and Algeria, or olive oil and Algeria, or sardine fishing and Algeria, something altogether outside of politics and tragedy. Maybe someday I’ll have the chance.
Louise’s narrative is subtly interwoven with returns to more recent times in New York City after the war on terror had started. She is seen through the eyes of Aissa, an Algerian writer who is curious, if wary of, her story.
Aissa has suffered tremendous losses of his own. He’s wary of Louise because her display of raw emotion makes it difficult for him to keep his feelings under wraps. In the same way, Wally’s daughter Amina rejects Louise’s inquiries, but they give her permission to speak about her long lost brother for the first time in years.
I wanted to offer these two Algerian characters, Aissa and Amina, both steeped in quiet sorrow, some kind of reprieve. Insofar as they find solace in each others’ company, Louise is the unwitting matchmaker.
You were a Fulbright student in France in the early sixties. As an outsider you probably observed a lot about French society at the time of “les evenements d’Algerie, as French people would refer to the Algerian war of independence until not so long ago.
I had a lovely Scandanavian friend in the mid sixties whose fiancé was a French army pilot terribly mutilated when his plane crashed and burned in Algeria. His family was ashamed of him, I heard, because this relic of a man, painful to behold, was a walking condemnation of war and the military profession. He looked like those boys must look who have set themselves on fire in Algeria, lately, to protest their dead-end lives -- the ones who have survived the burning.
The French owe apologies to the Algerians for the war of liberation; they owe apologies to their own sons as well
I missed a lot back in the early sixties. Grenoble where I studied in 61-62 was a ville frondeuse . In 1956 reservists in Grenoble lay down on the tracks to protest being sent to fight in Algeria. A Catholic charity built housing for Algerian workers, to rescue them from bidonvilles . I learned all this years later. My novel doesn’t do the city justice.
Is the world where Aissa and Louise meet very different from what it was when she loved Wally ? Are stereotypes different from what they were then?
Now that a young Google executive has led the protest movement in Egypt, and millions on facebook brought down the Tunisian regime, people are beginning to recognize that young Muslims are just like us, only smarter. Meanwhile we have an ongoing controversy in New York City over an Islamic cultural center, with mosque, that a sufi imam planned to open two blocks from “ground zero.” The imam finally withdrew after taking a lot of insults. The future of Cordoba House (as he planned to call it, the allusive name has since been discarded) remains uncertain. A Lebanese American author and teacher, Mustapha Bayoumi’s award winning book, How does it feel to be a Problem, being young and Arab in America , describes post 9/11 trauma, private and state-sponsored, for a number of Arab-American families. He has come under attack lately by alumni of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, where he teaches. Our House of Representatives is about to open narrowly focused, indeed, biased investigation into American mosques that radicalize their members.
But the daily lessons from Egypt and Tunisia and east and west have to have an impact, and silence at least some of the demagogues. I’m sad that Wally didn’t live to see the day.