What fiction reveals about the Algerian War

Joseph Andras’s <em>Tomorrow They Won't Dare to Murder Us</em> stunned France when it was released—and also remains strikingly relevant to the national debates on colonialism today

February 23, 2021
The story of Fernand Iveton soon became folded into national myth. Photo: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo
The story of Fernand Iveton soon became folded into national myth. Photo: The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

In a little-known 1947 essay Humanism and Terror, the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that “a society is not the temple of value-idols that figure on the front of its monuments or in its constitutional scrolls; the value of a society is the value it places upon man’s relation to man.” He was critiquing what he saw as a grandstanding French liberalism, too infatuated with its ideals to see what was being carried out in its name. “To understand and judge a society,” he continued, “one has to penetrate its basic structure to the human bond upon which it is built; this undoubtedly depends upon legal relations, but also upon forms of labour, ways of loving, living, and dying.”

Merleau-Ponty was writing at a time of incendiary debate among intellectuals in post-war France. Left-wing philosophers such as Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, finding themselves caught between American-style capitalism and Soviet-style communism, wondered if there was an alternative to either. (Humanism and Terror was in part a response to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a novel about the 1930s Stalin show trials.) Friendships were formed and torn apart over discussions on the use of violence in the service of revolution. Merleau-Ponty broke with Sartre and Beauvoir over their continued defence of the Soviet Union.

Then, in 1954, another historical upheaval would quickly reinvigorate the debate on violence, politics, and revolution: the fight for Algerian independence. It caused rifts of its own, notoriously between Sartre, who praised the emancipatory potential of revolutionary violence—notably in his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1961)—and Albert Camus. Camus, an Algerian pied noir of European descent, first argued that violence could quickly turn to nihilism in The Rebel (1951); later, he stood up on a podium to a large audience in Algiers during the war, proposing a “civilian truce” and asking the crowd to renounce “the slaughter of innocents.” His hesitant attitude to Algerian independence still garners disagreement in Algeria today—as are debates in France on secularism, Islam, and the nation’s colonial afterlives.

Fiction is one way of squaring Merleau-Ponty’s paradox between the gap of ideals and lived reality. It can unsettle the dictums of our time and speaks to our contemporary ways of living, loving, and dying that do not make it onto the front pages of newspapers, or into the speeches of politicians. Or, as Fernand Iveton, the protagonist of Joseph Andras’s 2016 novel, Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, translated by Simon Leser, puts it with reference to French attitudes to Algerian demands for independence: “We put them behind bars and abolish their parties, dissolved, reduced to silence, and then we stand so tall with Culture, Liberty, Civilisation, those capital letters, paraded up and down.”

Tomorrow blends fiction and non-fiction, picking up where Sartre and Camus’s debate on violence and the French state left off. Iveton was a real-life supporter of Algeria's National Liberation Front (FLN), born to Spanish and French parents in Algiers in 1926, and was the only European executed by France during the war, at the age of 29. The grand adages of the French republic—equality, humanism, and human rights—crumble to dust in Andras’s taunt, lyrical telling, as Iveton, a worker at a local gas company, prepares to set off a bomb in an abandoned shed at the factory where he works. He gets caught and is brutally interrogated by the police; his story attracts the attention of the press in Algeria and France. The French public calls for his blood. Meanwhile his wife Hélène, a defiant Polish Jew, becomes a local heroine within the underground Algerian resistance. 


Andras’s style can be frenetic. This is Iveton remembering the making of the bomb: “The timer is relentless, liable to drive a person crazy in the most literal way, tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock.” Then, suddenly, a return to the present: “Where’s the bomb you son of a bitch? Fernand is blindfolded with a thick piece of torn cloth. His shirt lies on the floor, shorn of most of its buttons. One of his nostrils is bleeding. A cop punches him as hard as he can; his jaw makes a faint cracking sound. Where’s the bomb?”

Iveton’s imprisonment and torture is woven alongside an earlier story of his relationship with Hélène. Here, the previously staccato prose becomes joyous, tender, full of soaring possibility that will be violently foreclosed. Iveton meets Hélène at a restaurant in Paris, where she works as a waitress. He notices her eyes, “coloured the kind of wolf-dog blue which rummages around your heart, never asking for permission,” which enchant the “North African kid that he is.” She tells him about her family, how her mother cast off her wealthy family to run off with her father, and which of her family members were massacred during the Second World War. They talk about politics: Fernand is upfront about his proletarian sympathies. Hélène laughs: “Why not? Communism would be nice, sure, provided that it’s actually implemented, equality for all, the real thing, without bigwigs or bureaucrats, without propaganda or political commissars. But that doesn’t really exist anywhere, not even in the USSR, she points out.”

What distinguishes Iveton is his belief that there can be that seemingly impossible space in-between. A member of the Algerian Communist Party, he becomes frustrated with the inertia of the party—itself riven with debate on whether the FLN comprised a “genuine revolution” or “the doing of reckless agitators'”—sees his friends die in the war, and becomes an independent affiliate of the FLN. He does not agree with some of their methods, choosing instead to place a bomb at an abandoned building near his workplace “to mess up some equipment” and make a symbolic statement—one that “could have hardly harmed a large fly.” When he later recounts the story to his inmates, a man named Abdelaziz objects, saying that “pilots who bomb villages don’t care about the children cowering inside of their homes—and eye for an eye,” he concludes.” If this were non-fiction, perhaps we’d be taken down the line of the Sartre-Camus debate on the ethics of violence, judge each side and come to a definitive conclusion. Instead, Iveton’s trial—now followed intensely by newspapers, politicians, and Hélène—awaits.

What is clear, though, is that Iveton will not be granted the same nuance with which he approaches his own politics by a nervous and vengeful French state. He goes into the trial believing that his intentions will absolve him—he did not want to hurt anybody, he tells the court. He only wanted to “draw the French government’s attention to the growing number of combatants fighting for greater social happiness,” he tells the court, and to “prove that not all European Algerians are anti-Arab, because the gulf keeps growing.” Iveton trusts that France “is no dictatorship; it’ll be able to see what’s what,” and reports to the judge of his experience being beaten and tortured—actions nominally prohibited.

But to the state, Iveton is not so much an individual with a fine-tuned purpose but a European Algerian who crossed an impossible threshold at an impossible time. The French state is on edge, his lawyers tell him; politicians claim in public that Iveton had intended to blow up “the whole city”; French newspapers deem him a “killer." Meanwhile François Mitterrand, then senior minister in charge of leading the response for the war, is confirming death sentences, holding the firm position that “Algeria is France.” Some speculate that because of Iveton’s race he will be spared, but things are more complicated. Iveton shows the others that there is a different way to be European. For breaking open these conditions of possibility, he is too dangerous to keep alive. 

First published in France in May 2016 under the name Nos frères blessés, Andras’s novel was awarded the Prix Goncourt prize for debut novels, sparking public interest in an unknown writer. Andras declined the prize, writing in a letter that “competition and rivalry were in his eyes notions foreign to writing and creation.” He has avoided engaging with the media, only giving short interviews to a few newspapers in which he reasserted his desire to live privately against the age of “spectacle, publicity, and media.”

The only things he has to say to the public, he followed, are in his book—a book that brings in vivid, roaming detail the life of one man, a historical conflict, and the ignoble past of a nation state at odds with its avowed ideals. The story of Iveton soon became folded into national myth: Sartre memorialised him in an essay titled We Are all Assassins; Camus, too, is said to have tried to prevent Iveton’s death, warning that “unpunished crimes, according to the Greeks, infected the city-state”—which rings like a premonition to the France of today, tumbling down in the gulf between Culture, Liberty, Civilisation and the violence it exacted throughout history and continues into the present day. Andras’s retelling adds to the rich canon. Though in it, Iveton not only becomes a historical symbol, but reanimated as a flesh-and-blood man who loved and was loved back.

Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us by Joseph Andras, translated by Simon Leser (Verso)