I am two novels along since I published THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER with Penguin in March 2016. For those who read my post last month you will know that my latest novel, THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE CLIFF, to be published 16th May 2019, is set in Paris during the 1968 student riots, and from there the story unfolds.
Usually, when a book or any work of mine has been completed, I move on. Except for editorial or marketing purposes, I find it very difficult to revisit the material because I worry over how I might have improved it. THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER seems to be an exception. Not because I am pleased with my work but because there is such a richesse of material that I might have used, and might still use one day.
The story is set on a family-owned vineyard in the south of France. Within the family, there are secrets and factions. Jane, the English woman who moves into the family when she marries Luc, the French son of Clarisse, the widowed proprietor of the vineyard, only begins to discover how deep and dark are those secrets when a tragedy occurs. Clarisse, her mother-in-law, is a pied noir, a black foot, a French woman, an ex-colonialist, born and raised in Algeria. Her son Luc was also born there. They fled to France at the end of the Algerian war in the summer of 1962, soon after De Gaulle gave independence to Algeria. Once safely arrived in France, they set up home on the vineyard, which is where the main action of the novel takes place.
I must be honest and say that when I delivered the book to my agent and it went to auction there was a background seam within the story that I had not entirely dared to address. The shadows lurking from the Algerian past of two of the main characters were hinted at, but not followed through. It was only when Maxine Hitchcock, my editor at Michael Joseph, Penguin, acquired the book and sent through her notes to me that I was encouraged to face head on those shadows, the ghosts I was writing about.
Behind the beauty and seductive landscape of the South of France, there lies a a more lurid past, Luc and Clarisse's, set in French-ruled Algeria.
Why am I returning in my thoughts to THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER and that bloody period in French history? President Emmanuel Macron has recently made a gesture that might go some way to healing this troubled past.
France's relationship to the country that was, for close to one hundred and fifty years, its unwilling colony, remains complex and unresolved. The French colonials who inhabited that large tract of northern Africa lived well at the expense of the Algerians.
In 1954, when the Algerian War of Independence, finally got under way, after many years of conflict, subordination and cruelty, France, not long after relinquishing all its claims to Indo-China, (its colonial territories in Southeast Asia including Vietnam) found itself yet again embroiled in an ugly and very costly war. This time on the southern side of the Mediterranean, the northern part of the continent of Africa.
To this day, the very mention of Algeria causes many French citizens to draw breath. The cruelties that took place before, during the eight-year war of independence and even after Charles de Gaulle had granted the country its independence, conjure up feelings of shame, confusion, even pain and anger for many French. For a mixture of reasons. It remains the past that most prefer not to visit and don't talk about. Algeria, and France's treatment of its Algerian citizens, had been brushed under the carpet for a half a century. As well, there is a large population in France, French citizens, who are descended from Algerians who were obliged to flee the land of their birth at the end of the independence war because they had fought with the French. Once victory had been assured, they were condemned as traitors back at home. The punishments meted out by the new Algerian regime were harsh; in many cases death sentences by lynch mobs. France offered refuge to these ex-soldiers and their families. De Gaulle took them in, promised them equality, pensions, education for their children etc. Much of those promises have never been fully honoured or are only now recognised as debts that are due. It has created appalling conditions and resentments for the fourth and fifth generation French-Algerians living, mostly, in the poorest suburbs in France. They feel disenfranchised, lost, lacking allegiance. It makes them prime candidates for recruitment by the likes of ISIS.
They are perceived as a French "problem". A result of the "troubles".
In 2012 on a state visit to Algeria, fifty years after the end of that war, President François Hollande acknowledged the appalling treatment of the Algerians during the 132-year occupation of their country and during the French-Algerian war. Hollande was the first to take this step, to admit to the brutalities that had taken place during the occupation and during the war. He did not, however, apologise.
François Hollande in Algiers in 2012
Many Algerians and some French were disappointed by the fact that, although this was a very necessary and long overdue first step towards a new era, new relations, between the two nations, no apology was forthcoming. During the time I spent in Algeria when I was working on my non-fiction book, THE OLIVE ROUTE, I began to get a sense of the the damage done to Algerian people during all those years of oppression; it had rooted itself deeply. For example, many spoke to me about the lack of education opportunities for their children and, without schooling, the dearth of possibilities to rise within their own country's system, for them to have a voice. As in South Africa and my own country of Ireland, when even one generation or two are given no opportunities to learn, to read, to engage, another form of poverty is created, an intellectual poverty, and that takes more than those one or two generations to re-enrich the system, to erase the hatred and anger and frustration and replace those energies with more positive responses to oppression.
In THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, Algeria and its occupation under the French, is not the central theme in the book, not by any means. It is more a shadow that hangs over the characters. One of the reasons I was hesitant about including this aspect of the material, of addressing it head-on, was because the French themselves have barely addressed it in their literature and cinema, although that is slowly changing. (Jean-Luc Godard attempted a film in 1960, but it was banned.) Also, because, as I have written above, it is an unresolved period in modern French history.
I have received many letters from readers who tell me they had known little if anything about this period of France's twentieth-century past. France in Vietnam is far more widely written about. Some readers have gone on to dig out material, to acquaint themselves more fully with that period. This pleases me greatly, as it would any writer. And the subject stays with me. Questions nag at me. I feel reasonably confident that, at some point, I will return to this subject, to write another book set in France, in Algeria. I don't know precisely what it will be, but there remains so much there yet to be mined.
It is an evolving story. Layers of history being peeled away to uncover what really lies beneath the surface. Fascinating for any writer.
Maurice Audin, tortured and murdered by the French State at the age of 25.
And so, when I read in the news several weeks ago ago that Emmanuel Macron (who was not even born at the time of the Algerian war) has gone a step further than Hollande, I felt that France might finally be making headway. Macron has offered up evidence to the torture and murder by the French state of one of their own citizens, Maurice Audin.
Audin was French, a journalist. But orders had been given to do whatever it took to crush the fight for Algeria's independence, to punish anyone who showed allegiance to the Algerian cause. Audin was a twenty-five-year-old mathematician, a communist, a reporter, and an ardent supporter of the Algerian Nationalists. Since his disappearance in 1957, more than half a century ago, Audin's family have searched and badgered to find out the truth about what really happened to the young man, who disappeared without trace. His widow, Josette, wrote letters every day, letter after letter, determined to root out the truth. The truth of Audin's ignominious end was buried and has remained out of reach until last month when Macron revealed the truth. He handed to the family an official document confirming that the French state had been directly responsible for the death of Audin.
I thought of this incident again last week after reading of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The impenetrability of state lies and subterfuge.
The pain and angst for the victim's loved ones. The never knowing.
It was a summer evening, 11th July 1957. French paratroopers burst into the apartment on the third floor of the block where the Audin family lived in Algiers. Maurice was dragged away and never seen or heard of again. Now, it has been admitted by Macron that he was tortured and murdered on instructions from the State. At the time, Josette was told that her husband 'had been shot while trying to escape'.
She never remarried. The fight for justice became her raison d'être. She wrote to every new president after his election begging for the truth.
Until Macron, every French president has preferred to avoid the brutalities of the war, never owning up to France's role in the executions of those who sympathised with the Algerian cause.
Shortly after he was elected, Macron contacted Josette to reassure her that he was willing to address the matter. The official statement from the Elysée Palace is the result. An end to the silence and denial. In this one instance.
But will Macron's gesture make any real difference at this late stage? I hope it will offer Audin's family the possibility of laying the horrors and concealed past to rest. I also believe that it is an important step in the process of healing between the French State, its citizens, Algeria and the Algerians who are residents in France. It will, I think, help move all parties towards a reconciliation with the nation's recent colonial history, its shameful past.
There is dignity is Macron's decision to come clean about this story. One story, I fear, of many.
Maurice Audin was a young Frenchman who spoke out against his own government and openly reproached its inhuman behaviour towards its citizens. His open criticism cost him his life. Macron's admission of the facts of Audin's torture and death and the fact that France used torture as a means to its ends throughout the Algerian war came ahead of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but as the world looks on in horror at the lies, the foul play, the mourning and grief Khashoggi's family is suffering, it makes this almost forgotten French story all the more poignant. Both men died under conditions no wild beast should be obliged to suffer. Audin's death is history to most, except to his family and, perhaps, French political historians. However, the calculated murder of journalists, the treatment of those who speak out against a regime is, tragically, obviously not history, given the recent events in Istanbul.
Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, our right to criticise, to call to account those who govern on our behalf: this is what is at stake. Macron's willingness to admit to the state's guilt is, I believe, at this time, so important not only for the history of France but for all of us and the world we are living in.