PUBLICATION: November 2018
“This is a simple, dispassionate account by seven Algerian intellectuals of the most damnable tortures ever endured by men.”
So it is written in the book-flap of what has proved to be a rare book—out of print since 1960—relegated to the silence of private collections and Amazon used book sellers. When La Gangrène emerged from its dusty placement in a Vancouver bookstore, blocked by a ladder, in the most inconspicuous of locations (directly in opposition to the trendy and expensive tomes on The Anthropocene), a wasp emerged. The wasp trembled as if it hadn’t emerged in a long time. It sat for a while on the shelf as the pages of the book were turned, its abdomen heaving until it gathered enough strength to fly. Who knows how long the wasp was there?
On June 16, 1959, La Gangrène was bravely published in France for the first time by Jérôme Lindon for Éditions de Minuit, a French publishing house that operated secretly under the Nazi occupation in 1942. La Gangrène documented the tortures endured by Algerians under the hands of French police. On June 20, the book was confiscated by the French government under President—and Minister of Algerian Affairs—Charles De Gaulle. On June 23, French police smashed the plates intended for printing a second French edition. The following spring, New York author and independent publisher Lyle Stuart re-published the book in English, breaking through a state-imposed silence. In France, it would be followed by Henri Alleg’s book La Quéstion and critical writings by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, both of whom publically denounced state-sanctioned torture. The censorship of La Gangrène also extended to similar works like Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, which was based on the memoirs of FLN leader Saadi Yacef and was banned for five years after its release in France.
La Gangrène re-emerges into the present day much like the wasp. The Green Violin version of La Gangrène is published in a shorter form than the original, consisting of fragments from all of the contained statements, with most omissions being descriptions of rooms or dates of arrest. Some descriptions of torture were also omitted to prioritize dialogue that revealed a different experience between testimonies.
There is no abstraction here. There are no conceptual exercises in the selections. While some circumstantial details in the original texts have been left out of this version, the names remain preserved. The names of these people are important. Decades on, their lives and their memories are important, and remain relevant in a global climate that is festering xenophobia, and the erosion of basic human rights and their legal protections.
In the Green Violin catalogue, this work shares space with Don Mee Choi’s transcriptions of former political prisoner Ahn Hak-sŏp who lives in the Civilian Control Zone on the South Korean side of the DMZ, with the similarly excerpted version of a declassified RCMP interrogation with Jeffrey Paul Delisle, as well as Abraham T. Zere’s brave essays on imprisonment, airport detainment and the absurd conditions of survival under the Eritrean regime. This abbreviated version of La Gangrène reflects the rhetoric, tactics of fear and psychological manipulation that accompany state-sanctioned torture. While the complete versions of the testimonies obviously cannot be substituted, it is striking that with the removal of most historically specific details the abusive practices of French police and the collusion of institutional bureaucracies are so apparently universal.
We have only to think of Guantanamo Bay, the well-documented tortures within Israeli detention centres, or enforced solitary confinement within Canadian prisons. Canada has already long forgotten the case of Ojibwe teenager Adam Capay who was kept in solitary for over 4 consecutive years without trial, and in 2018 is still awaiting his verdict. Police brutality knows no linguistic, cultural or temporal borders.
The re-publication of La Gangrène in this form is intended as a kind of commemorative edition, not in time with its original publication, but rather in dialogue with the printing date of November 11, 2018 and the printing location of Montréal, Québec. This date commemorates Armistice Day—exactly 100 years ago in 1918—and echoes with the words, Lest we forget . . . French military general Charles de Gaulle was captured by German forces during the First World War and was released on Armistice Day. During the Second World War, Charles De Gaulle would become celebrated as a leader of French resistance against Nazi Germany, and would emerge as the leader of a “Free France”.
Under De Gaulle, however, a “Free France” incubated its own racism as these testimonies will show, cultivating anti-Semitism among French police, a hatred towards dark-skinned North African immigrants within France and oppression towards Algerians living under French colonial occupation. De Gaulle also remains a figure celebrated historically and today by Québec nationalists—recalling his speech “Vive le Québec libre” that was given on July 24, 1964 and united nationalist sentiment over another form of French colonial occupation in unceded Indigenous land. Under de Gaulle’s government, Algerians fought for independence and attempted a coup, and eventually won their freedom—the universal, basic human right to exist for which, it would seem, the Second World War had been fought.
It becomes even more important to remember narratives such as those of La Gangrène as bigotry and right-wing ideology gain political fervour across Québec and the Americas, police are permitted more abusive powers, and anti-immigrant sentiment becomes policy. So we return to the sentiment that is attached to Armistice Day—what is it we are warned of in the symbolic phrase, lest we forget? We celebrate political leaders as icons of liberation and freedom, we elevate political caricatures and with them discard entire histories.
What is it that the generations before us have fought for? Was it not the right to exist without assault, in human dignity? What memory do we ultimately honour? Is it only an annual day of remembrance for the few names of political leaders who were equally complicit in crimes against humanity as those they formally denounced, or is it the remembrance of thousands of nameless people who died because of the hatred these leaders permitted, cultivated and manipulated on their own soil? As one of the French detectives at the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (D.S.T., a former directorate under the French National Police under the directorship of M. Roger Wybot) said, “I was tortured by the Nazis; now I do it myself.”
Texts such as La Gangrène too often become lost to history due to the whims of publishers and limited edition collections that restrict their place in public memory. This is almost as criminal as the silence and cowardice of those publishers and literati who chose to look the other way from the horrors described in La Gangrène at the time of original publication, who supported the gag on M. Lindon’s edition, or were apathetic to the destruction of the original plates of this important document.
The memory of this text is not easy, not pleasant, and not reassuring—but this is precisely why it must survive us. As Lyle Stuart wrote in the 1960 preface, “The Gangrene is not literature in the classic sense—and yet it is a kind of literature of our time that cries for attention. The cries are being heard in every civilized land.” These narratives are not a proprietary content. They are not “literature” to own or collect, to read in private and stash quietly away, content with a personal sense of enlightenment. These narratives belong to a common human memory and history, and it is an obligation that they be kept alive to remind us of what we enable through political apathy, what we really give space for in our cultivated bigotry, what we are capable of, and what we must be vigilant against.