Rachel died six months ago. He was 33. One day, about two years ago, something in his head just snapped and he started tearing around all over the place – France, Algeria, Germany, Austria, Poland, Turkey, Egypt. Between trips, he’d hold up in a corner and read, think, write stuff , and he’d rage. He lost his health. Then his job. Then his mind. Ophelie walked out on him. One night he killed himself. It was this year, 24 April 1996, at about 11pm.
The book opens with a shocker, Rachel’s suicide. Rachel (a nick for Rachid Helmut Schiller) and Malrich (a nick for Malek Ulrich Schiller) were born in Algeria to a German father and Algerian mother, who sent them to Paris as boys to live with a trusted couple on a council estate. While Rachel excelled and worked for a multinational selling pumps, his younger brother Malrich dropped out, becoming a regular in a jihadist mosque, until he seen through the smoke screen and decided to leave the jihadist group. But after their elderly parents were slaughtered in a village massacre by Islamist militants in Ain Deb, Algeria, Rachel learned of his father’s dark past.
Hans Schiller, their father, is a chemical engineer who made Zyklon B for the gas chambers, had escaped justice via Turkey and Egypt – where he worked for Colonel Nasser’s secret police – and then to Algeria, where he became a revered veteran, mujahid Si Mourad, of the fight for Algeria independence. For two years, Rachel obsessively tracked his father’s path through the various countries mentioned at the book opening and all the way back to Auschwitz. To atone for his father’s sin, he killed himself, with slow excruciating death of gas inhalation.
The book is written in a journal format and it brilliantly alternate between Rachel’s intellectual, researched monologue and Malrich brash and angry urban lingo. Rachel had kept the secret of their father’s past from his teenage brother, but bequeathed Malrich his diaries upon his death with its shocking revelations. The Unfinished Business is essentially the business Malrich must undertake to follow his brother’s and essentially his father’s paths to uncover the truth.
Set in the 1990s, between civil-war Algeria and run-down Paris suburbs festering with Islamist recruitment drives, An Unfinished Business is in part an attempt to rediscover the meaning of the Holocaust for a generation largely ignorant of it. While it is Sansal the author’s attempt to draw parallels between the cruelties of the Nazis and the new-style jihadists, I failed to see the close relation between the two except the common theme of atrocities, still where one is executed in painstaking scientific planning, which added the monstrosity of the act; the other one is a wanton act of atrocities acted upon to the ones who are unaware and caught at the wrong place in the wrong time.
However reading about an Arab writing about the taboo subject of the Holocaust feels strangely refreshing. I most appreciate the searing account and intensity in the evil, guilt and shame emotions that flows through the book, a novel with long sentences and very few break in paragraphs. It contains one of the most detailed account and research on gassing techniques and emotions ever described about Holocaust, albeit if one is reading a non-fiction explanation of what had happened. The book poses profound questions: are we answerable to the crimes of our fathers?
And many passages from the book that makes me reflect:
About being so far from home:
Here in this sacred atmosphere, in this place where death had passed like a blast of the apocalypse, these phrases resonated oddly with me. Being so far from everything in this devastating but exhilarating emptiness, borne up by this sense of time passing unhurriedly, by these infallible memories by words which have crossed the centuries, questioning and humanising the unknowable, fosters a sense of infinite and unshakeable patience, of transcendence. You do not see yourself moving towards this blessed state, but suddenly you are someone else, someone who observes the world serenely, asks no questions, feel no fear. It is wonderful and terrifying at the same time. You spurn life, rise above it, look on it as inconsequential, ephemeral, illusory, even as life – indefatigable, magnificent, eternal –crushes us like grains of sand and sweeps us under the carpet. – Rachel, page 33.
I arrived I realised once again that in life, the more you prepare yourself, the less prepared you actually are. You conjure so many mental images that reality comes as a complete shock. When torn from our everyday routine, we’re like blind men deprived of our white stick. – Rachel, page 53
About investigating war
Trying to find out about past wars is hellish – a series of dead ends, of paths that disappear into darkness, suppurating cesspits shrouded in mist, dust rising like curtains of smoke as you grope your way through the void. – Rachel, page 99
About death and emigration
What I am trying to say is that death expresses truth better than life. I think nothing connects a mean to the earth more than the graves of his parents and his grandparents. That’s only just occurred to me, I’ll have to think about it, because it sounds strange to say death binds us to life when we know that death is the end of everything. Rachel used to say home is where you live, which is true – but he was talking about the emigrants who stubbornly go on living as emigrants and who end up not living in their own country or their adopted one. Rachel was right, its psychology. They’re just thinking about themselves, about their death, about the grave waiting for them back in the old country, they’re not thinking about the children they’re leaving dangling over the abyss. – Malrich, page 126
Judging our father
Children always judge their fathers harshly, but they do so because they love and respect them more than anyone in the world. – Rachel, page 144
The novel came alive with beautiful Frank Wynne’s translation (He jointly won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with Houellebecq for Atomised, his translation of Les Particules élémentaires). The novel is humane, audacious and heartbreaking. I expect a political novel about the trial and tribulation of Algerians, instead it was a book about the Holocaust. I welcome the aberration that smashes my stereotypical view about what Middle Eastern authors chose to write about. It is certainly a novel that requires second reads, it is a novel to ponder and reflect, and to digest and absorb before truly appreciating it; and I’m not sure if I’m that kind of a reader. A more intense soul searching and guilt trip narration than The Reader by Bernhard Schlink. Highly recommended for anyone who wants to read a searing account of the Holocaust.
I picked this book up as part of my library’s “Around the world in 80 reads” feature.
Paperback. Length: 239 pages. Publisher: Bloomsbury 2011. Source: Reading Battle Library. Setting: Sweden. Finished reading at: 7th November 2011. Translated brilliantly from French by Frank Wynne.
About the writer:
Boualem Sansal was born in Algeria in 1949. Trained as an engineer with a doctorate in economics, he began writing novels at the age of 50 after retiring from his job as a high-ranking official in the Algerian government. The assassination of President Boudiaf in 1992 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria inspired him to write about his country.
Sansal writes in French and his work has won top literary awards in France, among them the Prix du Premier Roman in 1999. His debut novel was Le serment des Barbares (Gallimard, 1999), which has now been made into a film based on a screenplay by Jorge Semprún. On 16 October 2011 Sansal received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade.
Sansal published his first novel at the age of 50. Since 2006, when he wrote an essay entitled Poste Restante Algeria: An Open Letter to My Compatriots in Anger, his books have been banned there. This is his first to be translated into English. One hopes the rest will follow.