This angry question, uttered repeatedly by the protagonist of Bualem Sansal‘s courageous and thought-provoking novel, translated into English as “The German Mujahid,” has been permanently etched in my brain.
The story follows the day-to-day chaos in the life of Malrich, a young and poorly educated Algerian immigrant in a Parisian housing project. Malrich is reeling from the depression and suicide of his older brother–all the more shocking because his brother (Rachel) was a well-paid engineer for a multi-national corporation who had apparently integrated seamlessly into French society. The key to the tragedy lay in Rachel’s journal.
In the course of the novel, the reader is exposed to the deadly radical Islamic fundamentalism that has become rampant in the housing projects, along with the deadly massacres of the Algerian civil war–in which Malrich’s parents were murdered along with dozens of others in their small village. Simultaneously, Rachel’s diary brings to light an insufferable secret that neither Rachel not Malrich can bear–the father of German descent that they loved (who had moved to Algeria after World War II) had been a chemical engineer at Auschwitz charged with enhancing the efficiency of gassing Jews to death.
Having read many books focused on the Holocaust, I am still recovering from the chilling accounts of how mass murder could be coldly turned into an engineering problem–getting the maximum number of dead Jews for the minimum of Zyclon B gas–whether more efficient in cooler or warmer weather, and what height the roof of the gas chamber should be for maximum efficacy. This is an unforgettable novel, for anyone able to stomach the descriptions.
Infused with humanity (and despite his self-described simplicity), street-wise Malrich embodies Sansal’s courage, and is unwilling to bow to the Algerian authorities or the fundamentalists. At the same time, he is also unwilling to accept that his father participated in the largest scale and most organized genocide ever known to mankind–hence the repeated cries: “Who the hell will tell me who my father really was?!”
Sansal is a rare author who stands out in his tremendous personal courage, drawing parallels between today’s Jihadists and yesterday’s Nazi’s. The symbolism is clear: the Nazi engineer murdered by the wake of fundamental Islamicists represents the turning tide and new world order. This novel by Sansal, an Algerian native, has been described as the first attempt by an Arab author to address the horrors of the Holocaust, but this is not mere lip service; it is one of the most impacting books I have read. Given Sansal’s moral compass, I will be on the lookout for anything he writes.