The Novel France Wanted to Forget

An introduction to On Leave, nearly 60 years after its publication
David Bellos

On Leave by Daniel Anselme was first published in Paris—as La Permission—in the spring of 1957. It had few readers and only a handful of reviews. It was never reprinted. In America, you can’t find it in the Library of Congress or any major university collection. Save for an Italian translation, On Leave almost disappeared.

Yet it was an important book, and has become more precious with the passing of time. It tells in simple terms of the damage wrought by an unpopular and unwanted war on young men who are obliged to fight it. In 1957, as France’s engagement in Algeria became ever more bloody, On Leave told French readers things they did not want to hear: the silence surrounding its publication speaks loudly of its power to disturb. This short novel was all the more unsettling because it is neither a testimony nor a polemic. In fact, it hardly mentions military action at all.

One remarkable feature of Anselme’s novel is simply its date. The Algerian War ended in 1962. Almost everything there is to read on the subject nowadays was written later, with hindsight, in full knowledge of the story’s end. On Leave tells us what a war is like in real time, with no outcome in sight. It rescues from oblivion states of mind and feeling that have been swept away by history, overlaid with later needs and priorities, swallowed whole by interpretation. That’s a service that literature alone can provide.

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The plot is not at all complicated. A sergeant, a corporal, and an infantryman are on their way back to Paris in December 1956 for home leave over Christmas and New Year’s. In the ten days they spend in the city attempting to reconnect with their families and friends, they learn that they are now fish out of water.  What they have to say can’t be heard, can’t even be spoken. The three conscripts return in anger, shame, and dismay to complete their military service, departing on a crowded troop train that leaves Paris almost secretly in the middle of the night.

The war they were fighting was both very old and very new. The French Navy had seized the fortress city of Algiers in 1830, in the last days of the reign of Charles X. At that time Algiers was an independent fiefdom nominally ruled by Ottoman overlords, and its principal business was piracy, which was what gave France its pretext to invade. Under the reign of Louis-Philippe the army waged a long war against insurgent tribes along the coastal strip and in the hinterland. The brutal pacification of Algeria was sullied further by the rampant corruption that looms in the background of Balzac’s somber novel Cousin Bette (1846).

Two bizarre ideas supported France’s grab of this slice of the Mediterranean’s southern shore. The pirates and seafarers of the coastal towns still used lingua franca in the nineteenth century. Although this mysterious language (of which few written traces remain) was without doubt a pidgin of Arabic, with many words borrowed from Spanish and Italian as well as French, the name franca was enough to persuade people that it was somehow, originally, French. Secondly, long before it acquired its Arabic and Muslim population, Algeria had been an important Roman province. Its towns and deserts were littered with old stones inscribed with Latin epigraphs. France, which saw itself as a new Rome, felt entitled— if not duty-bound—to pursue its mission civilisatrice by reappropriating this part of the ancient empire.

The decision to turn this “empty space” into a settler colony came later, and was propounded most energetically by progressive and left-wing politicians. The project got under way in the 1850s and expanded greatly after 1870, when Alsace and Lorraine were ceded to a newly unified German empire. Many of the French speakers living in those two areas chose to leave and on arrival in France were encouraged to settle new lands in North Africa. Algeria was also a favored destination for the left-wing survivors of the Paris Commune and other political undesirables. The European population was boosted by immigration from Switzerland (still one of Europe’s poorest nations), Spain, Italy, and Malta. By the end of the nineteenth century, all had blended into a French-speaking European community of Algerians, together with a sizable community of indigenous Jews (probably dating from Roman times) who had acquired French nationality and citizenship en bloc in 1870. At that time the “European” population was almost as large as the Arabic and Berber populations combined. French government policy was to foster their assimilation, too—that is to say, to make Frenchmen of them, so that the “native problem” would just melt away.

Algeria had no important mineral or other natural resources, but settlers established prosperous farms on the coastal plains. France set up a network of public services and schools in which a handful of Arabs were educated and turned into Frenchmen. The remainder of the non-European population had French nationality, but not citizenship. Giving them a vote in national elections remained a political impossibility until the end.

By the turn of the twentieth century, France had established protectorates over the neighboring states of Morocco and Tunisia, and also acquired an African empire, stretching from Senegal to the Congo, including the vast territories of present- day Chad, Mali, and Niger. In Morocco and Tunisia, traditional structures of legitimacy were left intact, though stripped of any real power. In the lands farther south and west, France created colonies under direct administration from Paris. But Algeria was a special case. It was not a protectorate (it had no indigenous political structure to “protect”), nor was it a colony. It was therefore conceived as an integral part of France. It was divided administratively into three départements, which returned members of parliament (unlike the colonies and the protectorates), and Paris in its turn sent préfets to oversee them, just like in metropolitan France. “French Algeria” was not a fiction—except that it excluded the majority population from national political life.

The first stirrings of a local independence movement came not from the Arab or Berber inhabitants but from the European Algerians themselves. They were suspicious of politicians in Paris who might force unwanted reforms on them. Many of them were not of French descent, of course, and few had ever visited France.

Algerians were conscripted irrespective of citizenship to defend France in World War I. Algerian regiments comprised exclusively of Muslims also played key roles in the liberation of France in 1944 – 45. Many of them thought that their role in assisting France in its hour of need would inspire generosity toward their own growing aspirations for political rights. However, a protest meeting in Sétif in May 1945 was brutally put down by French soldiers. The wanton violence at Sétif undoubtedly radicalized many and sowed the seeds of a more substantial rebellion.

What we now call the Algerian War began on November 1, 1954, when a few hundred lightly armed fighters attacked French soldiers and civilians in coordinated fashion in a number of different places. Casualties were light—nine killed and three injured—and the outrage was dismissed by most French officials of the time as a maneuver sponsored by Nasser’s Egypt, which had its eye on that vital Anglo-French asset, the Suez Canal. The French leader, Pierre Mendès-France, and his Minister for the Interior, François Mitterand, responded with what they called a “police action.” “Algeria is France, not a foreign country under protection,” they declared. Political and economic reforms were accelerated and a new governor general, Jacques Soustelle, was installed. However, after their initial attack, the independence fighters considered themselves Mujahedin and began to turn their violence toward Muslim apostates and traitors to the cause—with great success. Paris declared a state of emergency to stem the rising tide of violence against Muslims who wished Algeria to remain part of France, and in May 1955 gave quite draconian powers to the military to deal with what were still called “the events in Algeria.” Although the word “war” remained taboo, the new rules meant that French soldiers could legally shoot anyone with a weapon on sight and gun down without warning anyone seen running away, whether armed or not. The new rules of engagement also made villages collectively responsible for any acts of violence or sabotage committed in them or by any of their members, which effectively gave the military license to destroy whole communities.

Torture was already widely used by the police and military. It would become one of the most divisive and shameful issues to arise from the Algerian conflict, but in the early period, when this novel is set, it remained an entirely unspoken blight.

The rebels’ response was desperate and horribly effective. On August 20, 1955, the National Liberation Front carried out a blind raid on the town of Philippeville, killing 123 people (mostly French, but including some “Muslim traitors”), with the explicit aim of provoking French retaliation. The army’s massive response killed thousands—maybe as many as 12,000—in a couple of days. The violence of the French conscript army alienated an even larger part of the Algerian population, which fell increasingly under the sway of the National Liberation Front. In Paris, reservists were called up, not without protest; military service was extended from 24 to 27 months (and, for some cohorts, to 30 months); the number of military in Algeria thus grew from 200,000 in January 1956 to 400,000 in July to a peak of 450,000 in January 1957. Among these troops were the three characters in Anselme’s novel.

At this point two things happened. In Algiers, martial law was imposed and General Massu put down the revolt with efficient brutality. (The story of that counter-insurgency is told in Gillo Pontecorvo’s harrowing film La Battaglia di Algeri [1966].) And in Paris, a left-wing journalist by the name of Daniel Anselme wrote this book.

Anselme was born in Paris in 1927, the son of a Dutch mother and a Russian father, Léon Rabinovitch, who was on his way to becoming a prosperous lawyer. At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, to keep them safe, Léon boarded his two sons at a school in Dieulefit, near Montélimar, in the Rhône Valley. He joined them there himself after the armistice of July 1940, which put Dieulefit in the Non-occupied Zone.

Daniel’s father joined the Resistance and had a new identity forged for him by a secretary in the mairie who used names he could see out the window on the war memorial— and that is the simple origin of the name “Anselme.” Like many of the Free French, Léon Rabinovitch changed his name formally after the end of the war to match his wartime identity. As Daniel was over twenty-one by the time the paperwork was done, the name change did not apply to him (as it did to his younger brother) and he remained legally “Rabinovitch” for the rest of his life. But he was never known as anything other than Daniel Anselme.

In Dieulefit, still only sixteen, Daniel also joined the Resistance. Unlike his father, who was a member of the Gaullist “Secret Army,” Daniel was drawn into the partisan movement, the F.T.P., controlled by the underground Communist Party. Both father and son saw action at the Battle of Montélimar in July 1944.

Daniel returned to Paris and to school in 1945. The following summer he visited Scotland with his scout pack, but failed to return home: he had got a job as a cub reporter on a Glasgow newspaper. He never earned his baccalaureate or had any further education. Returning to Paris, he joined the Communist Party and got a job on the left-wing weekly Action. Subsequently he joined Les Lettres françaises, the Party’s cultural mouthpiece, edited by the poet Louis Aragon. Anselme traveled widely in the late 1940s and 1950s, covering the foreign tours of the Théatre National Populaire. It was on one of those visits to Eastern Europe that he met the socialist militant Claire Picard, who became his wife in 1954. The marriage was not a long one. Its end coincided with or was preceded by another divorce—from the Communist Party itself.

Anselme published two poetry collections when he was barely out of his teens, but On Leave was his first novel. In an interview, Anselme said that he saw writing fiction as an extension of political struggle. But On Leave does not extend the struggle of the Communist movement. On the contrary, it lambastes the hypocrisy of a party whose position on the Algerian conflict had revealed it as just another colonialist force.

After leaving the Communist Party over its attitude to Algeria, Anselme never joined any other, but after May 1968 he took up the cause of trade unionism. He founded the periodical Cahiers de Mai, which published narratives of working-class lives in the words of the workers themselves. For a while he was prominent as a spokesman for the watchmakers of Besançon, who occupied their bankrupt factory and then ran it as a collective for more than five years. He published a second novel, Les Relations, in 1964, and a semiautobiographical account of his wartime experience, Le Compagnon secret, in 1984. He died in 1989.

Anselme was podgy as a boy and overweight as an adult, reaching 160 kg (350 pounds) by the time of his death. Throughout his life he was most often to be found holding court in one of his regular Left Bank cafés, Le Rostand or Chez Dalloyau. He was an enchanting storyteller, a raconteur, and a wit. With his great friend Albert Cossery, a Franco-Egyptian writer who spent more than forty years living in the same room in the same hotel, he became expert at persuading publishers and film and television producers to give him an advance for book proposals, film scripts, and series concepts. Only a few of them got written, and even fewer found their way into print or onto a screen.

On Leave is not autobiographical in any important way. As a former freedom fighter Anselme was exempt from military service, and by 1956 he was long past call-up age—and far too obese to be found fit for service, in any case. The novel is not drawn from personal experience or anguish, nor does it rely on any written sources—there was very little discussion in the press of the actual conduct of the Algerian conflict, and the voices of soldiers and conscripts were nowhere to be heard. Anselme’s material can only have come from imaginative sympathy with young men he saw trailing around the same bars he frequented. Anselme was not only a good raconteur: as a journalist, he was good at listening, too.

The actual outcome of the conflict that Anselme’s characters expect to last all their lives long—one of them expects to keep on fighting to maintain France’s hold on its African empire and to come out of the jungle somewhere near Zanzibar in twenty-five years’ time—was stranger than any fiction that could have been imagined in 1957. The settler community in Algeria—known as colons or pieds-noirs—grew ever more fearful, not only of the indigenous revolt, but also of betrayal by France, and began its own campaign of terror to pressure the military into taking its side. (The depth of resentment felt by conscripts against the pieds-noirs, the very people they were allegedly protecting, comes out clearly in one striking scene in this novel.) Making concessions to this side and that, the government became trapped in its own contradictions. The army, bent on restoring its honor after its humiliating losses in Indochina and Suez, plotted to take power, but the putsch was deftly sidetracked by Charles de Gaulle, the former leader of the Free French. The Fourth Republic collapsed in May 1958, and de Gaulle took over as the leader of a new regime, France’s Fifth Republic. As he was a soldier, too, he was fully expected to reimpose order on the Algerian situation and to maintain France’s hold on its empire, as he had done during the darkest days of World War II. But de Gaulle quickly grasped that the project was untenable. The European settlers were seen by the French as outdated slave drivers, even though the majority of them were nothing of the sort, just urban poor, like Albert Camus’s mother, who had not even learned to read. They were hated above all because hundreds of thousands of young men were being forced to spend ever longer periods of military service defending them against Arabs whose land they had taken. De Gaulle therefore opened secret negotiations with the Algerian nationalist movement. In the spring of 1962, he signed an agreement granting full sovereignty to Algeria from July 1, 1962. Non-Muslims with French nationality and citizenship would have the right to “return” to France. About 100,000 were expected to leave. In fact, virtually the entire non-Muslim population of Algeria relocated to France (and in smaller part to Israel) in the three-month window allowed—about 1,250,000 people in all. It is one of the largest, fastest, and least-discussed mass migrations in modern times. In 1957, when this novel was published, de Gaulle, if he was thought about at all, was a hero from the past and just about the least likely person to grant Algeria its independence. It was equally unimaginable that almost the entire European population would pack up and move out. But that is what happened. Anselme’s novel takes us back to a time when the future course of real events was more farfetched than any fiction.

This spare and forceful novel speaks of the moral and human isolation of soldiers obliged to fight an unpopular war, not when they are in the field, but when they are back home. Lachaume, the bourgeois intellectual, cannot get through to his self-satisfied and pampered old friends. They have no idea what the war has done to him—and no wish to find out. Valette, the working-class lad from the suburbs, can’t understand why the Communist Party has done nothing to stop the war. When the great proposal of the local Party boss turns out to be nothing more than circulating yet another petition, the cynicism and hypocrisy of the left is laid bare. Lasteyrie, the Parisian teddy-boy, is torn between his instinct for cheeky revolt and the impossibility of it. By the time their short leave is over, they know they have no friends left in France, save each other.

It’s often said that the Algerian War produced no great works of literature to put alongside The Charter-house of Parma (with its ironical portrayal of Waterloo), War and Peace (with a no less ironical narrative of Borodino), All Quiet on the Western Front (a novel of the trench warfare of 1914–18), For Whom the Bell Tolls (set in the Spanish Civil War), and the uncountable novels and films arising from the events of 1939–45. For many decades the Algerian War did not even have a memorial in France. (There is still only one, on Quai Branly in Paris, inaugurated in 2002.) Anselme’s disaffected young men intuit that they will be forgotten as quickly as possible, which is why they make a mock memorial of their own, in the last chapter of this novel, on top of the plinth that celebrates the minor French animal sculptor Barye, at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis. All that remained of their living statue was an almost entirely black photograph with a vague smudge in the middle. That just about sums up France’s long-standing attitude toward the half-million conscripts who fought with such reluctance to “keep Algeria French.”

Twenty-five years ago I was chatting with a French friend about the paucity of literary material on the Algerian War, accusing France of voluntary amnesia, as foreign scholars are wont to do. He reached to his shelf, pulled down a tattered paperback, and said without any words: There was a literature of the Algerian War, and here it is.

David Bellos is the director of the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication at Princeton University, where he is also a professor of French and comparative literature. He is the author of Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (Faber, 2011). Bellos has won many awards for his translations, including the Man Booker International Translator’s Award. He received the Prix Goncourt for his biography of Georges Perec and has also written biographies of Jacques Tati and Romain Gary.