Colonialist myths

Images of the Algerian War:
April 14, 1995

The Algerian War was, also, "a battle of the written word". Verbalisation, that compulsive French pastime, has a second meaning in French: a police-booking, a bringing to book. In his continuously intelligent and engrossing study, Philip Dine's keyword is "specificity". Indeed, when people refuse to think specifically, they generalise, stereotype, demonise and mythologise. Hence, "the literally unthinkable nationalist revolt". He categorises most of the discourse generated as Manichaean. His approach is graciously in hock to Barthes's Mythologies. The power of myth, false consciousness, phantasms are his targets; yet he recognises that, when it comes to hard-headed beliefs, we are mostly, whatever our sophistication, half-baked and yet inflexible.

While resolutely undecided as to whether literature or film can positively inflect historical processes, Dine clings to the belief, with Sartre, that they can demystify obfuscation and thereby induce consumers to rethink. He is courteously rude about those champions of aesthetic pathos who equate experimentation with political subversion, in an act of radical chic(anery).

Among the types of myths he analyses are : the paratrooper, the senior officer as feudal lord, the hand-wringing liberal intellectual, and the Algerian as ungraspable Other. The paras had come to Algeria straight from the catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The compensating fascistic myth depicted them as leopards (their camouflaged uniforms), true patriots sickened by metropolitan decadence, and (very French, this) appropriating cultural or historical guarantees, as in Lartguy's Les Centurions. Their senior officers were allowed, in fiction, to be more lucid and nuanced than the exquisite brutes under them, if not actually "torn asunder" inside, like liberals. The latter often enjoyed the luxury of moral indignation without confronting the crucial question of Algeria's future status. Dine studies even-handedly the notorious case of Camus's "silence", centring on the ambiguously-titled story, "L'Hote" (host/guest). Camus typified the "neither-norism" ("neither victims nor oppressors") of many well-intentioned witnesses. Camus felt a stranger in his homeland. How much more "strangerly" were Algerians forced to feel by a "culturally aggressive colonialism"?

Two further myths of arrival and exit were dispossession (which had driven poor Frenchmen to colonise Algeria), and abandonment (by de Gaulle, which led to their enforced exile). The near total lack of miscegenation helped to breed unforgiving dualisms: the Algerian always an object, never a partner.

One writer, Philippe Labro, fingered the nub, in talking of "a multitude of solitudes. No universality". The military contingent retained, in this view, its philosophical meaning: absurd, accidental, disconnected. Such a view would dissolve the essentialism of most of the war discourse. It not only disqualifies humanist moralising or fascist stereotypes, however, but also any attempts to think through the whole question in political terms, which entail generalisation.

Walter Redfern is professor of French, University of Reading .

Images of the Algerian War:: French Fiction and Film, 1954-1992

Author - Philip Dine
ISBN - 0 19 815875 0
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 267pp

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