Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review of The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal (translated by Frank Wynne)

The German Mujahid: a novel
4 out of 5: Rachel and Malrich, Algerian-born brothers living with distant relatives in a rough Muslim ghetto thirty minutes outside of Paris, discover the horrible truth about their German father: he’s a former SS officer employed in the Nazi death camps during World War II. Their father’s secret past only comes to light after he and his wife are brutally murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in the small Algerian village where they live. After this devastating series of events causes Rachel to commit suicide (an event disclosed on page 1), Malrich sets off on a journey to come to terms with his brother’s death and his father’s evil past. Along the way, Malrich draws parallels between the Holocaust and the more recent murders perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists.

Clearly, there is a lot going on in The German Mujahid, but the book’s structure—rigid enough to shape the story but relaxed enough to allow for relevant tangents—holds it all together for the most part. Composed of the brothers’ alternating journal entries and skipping nimbly back and forth in time, this structure maintains suspense while filling in enough background details to create depth and resonance.

Sansal’s central concern is whether a father’s sins should be (must be?) imputed to his sons, and the brothers’ attempts to answer this question drive most of the action. Malrich asks:
Am I supposed to believe the man I called papa and the SS officer are really the same person? How is it possible to blame one and honour the other, to hate the killer he was—a man I never knew—and love the father, the victim he is now, a victim of the same terrorists who are gunning for us?
It’s a complicated question, and Sansal’s treatment is appropriately perceptive, if occasionally preachy. The German Mujahid is a powerful examination of terrorism, both past and present, and its effects on those innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire.

2 comments:

Biblibio said...

There were two main points with the book I disliked. The first is the diary format, because it's almost always a misuse. The second issue was a little more complex and relevant: I had some trouble swallowing some of the preachy (as you put it) connections made, especially since they were often based on slight inaccuracies. I found that Malrich often said important things but for the wrong reasons. It bothered a little, even as I recognized the semi-formed truths in the statements. On the whole, though, it really is an interesting book with a lot a lot to think about.

Zibilee said...

I am not really sure if this book would be for me or not. I have read so many books that deal with the holocaust in the past couple of years that I am a little reluctant to add more books on that subject to my list, but the fact that this book is written as diary entries, and the fact that it attempts to make a connection between the holocaust and today's terrorism makes me very curious. I think I will have to read more about this book and try to make a decision.