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Fiction

Unfinished Business by Boualem Sansal

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.

About preparation

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.

Rating: 

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.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “Unfinished Business by Boualem Sansal

  1. The only work by an Algerian author I recall having read were the novels of Albert Camus-this does sound like a very interesting work as it relates to the holocaust

    Posted by Mel u | November 11, 2011, 1:16 am
  2. How were your travels, Jo? I loved loved loved the passages you have quoted. Sigh,people can write with such beauty, often the poetry lies in the saddest of things, and that’s when I wonder if sadness is beautiful, like little “handkerchiefs of God,” gently dropped to remind us to cry at the beauty inherent

    Posted by Soul Muser | November 11, 2011, 1:54 pm
    • oh Soul,
      little “handkerchiefs of God,” you are just as poetic Soul. Boualem Sansal writes some of the most beautiful passages and thanks for Frank Wynne for his brilliant translation.

      Posted by JoV | November 11, 2011, 2:14 pm
  3. I haven’t read any books set in Algeria or with Algerian characters. This sounds like the book I should change that with. I feel so badly for Rachel learning such a shocking truth about his father after his father’s death. Hoe awful he felt to have taken the action he did.
    There are so many books about or involving some aspect of the Holocaust but this one sounds unique. Some of this book sounds harsh and difficult to read but it was also reality for some people which I think makes it important to read ( I’m specifically thinking about the gassing techniques).

    There are many reason to read this book, I think. Thank you for reviewing it. I ‘enjoyed’ your thoughts on this book and am adding it to my wish list.

    Posted by Amy | November 11, 2011, 8:07 pm
    • Amy,
      I’m glad you are adding this to your TBR. It is one of the most intense I have read and I thought it was very well written. We know of many SS guards running off to South America, but this one offers a perspective for one who went to Algeria. It still sounds very fictional to me, but if I care to research any further I’m sure I will find that it is true. Thanks for dropping by Amy. 😉

      Posted by JoV | November 13, 2011, 9:56 am
  4. I love sound of thios and am huge fan of franks translations as he always manage to keep the poetry of the book alive ,having just read Djebar I m looking for something else Algerian to reasd thanks Jov ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | November 12, 2011, 12:44 pm
    • Stu,
      I got one more Frank’s translation on my list, “What the day owes the night” By Yasmina Khadra, he is a great translator isn’t he? Very glad of any help. I love reading about Algeria too!

      Posted by JoV | November 13, 2011, 10:02 am
  5. I’m actually surprised at how many different titles this book has! When it was published in the US a few years ago, it came attached with a completely different title (The German Mujahid). I’ve furthermore seen translations into other languages and they too chuck the long, overly descriptive French title in exchange for something punchier and perhaps a little less accurate (and a heck of a lot less literal…).

    I was fascinated in part by Sansal’s novel because it tries to convey the right message for the wrong reasons. Sansal attempts to do away with anti-Semitism and religious extremism, but I felt as though there were many parts in which he could not put to words his gut feelings. It was a weird, kind of disturbing sensation… This is certainly a good, worthwhile book but for me it was also a very difficult, almost unpleasant read.

    Posted by Biblibio | November 12, 2011, 3:45 pm
    • Biblibio,
      Thanks for sharing your view on this, from someone who had read the book. It is indeed a difficult and unpleasant read but Sansal tried to inject some humour in parts of Malrich and I think he succeeded. It is my stereotype which sends a weird reading experience to this one, German Mujahid is as remote to me as saying peanut butter with seafood salad. But if I read about a historical book that shows prove about this, I think I will buy it. Thanks for commenting.

      Posted by JoV | November 13, 2011, 10:09 am
  6. Great review, Jo. This one sounds pretty great if intense, it goes on my post-uni reading list!

    Posted by Bina | November 16, 2011, 9:43 pm
  7. I enjoyed this book very much and reviewed it also on my blog: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=224

    Posted by Mytwostotinki | October 10, 2014, 9:27 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

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JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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