THE WOUND by Laurent Mauvignier
Laurent Mauvignier’s 2009 Des Hommes (Some Men, translated by David and Nicole Ball as The Wound) is a haunted and haunting novel. Mauvignier was born in 1967, after France gave up compelling Algeria to remain a subordinate part of the country (in the Evian Accords of 1962).
The novel open in rural France ca. 2002 at the retirement party of Solange, Her derelict/drunkard (but not homeless) brother Bertrand, a veteran of the French army in the Algerian conflict, now generally called “Feu-de-Bois” (wood smoke) embarrasses her and outrages his other siblings by giving her an expensive jeweled brooch. Family dynamics (dysfunctions) will be revealed over the course of the four parts (afternoon, evening, night, morning) of the novel—with the longest part (night) heavy on flashbacks. The narrator, who was also drafted and sent to Algeria, Rabut, is Bertrand’s cousin and not lacking in a guilty conscience and PTSD sleep disturbances.
Rabut wishes he was not related to Bertrand, and, still more, was unfamiliar with the atrocities committed by and against the French in Algeria. What emerges with Faulknerian indirection (if in simpler syntax) is a searing portrayal of racism, torture, and the insecurities of counter-insurgency (with an invisible enemy easily mistaken for visible noncombatants), along with an awareness that occupation of France (by Germany) was resented and feared much as the French counterinsurgency in Algeria was.
Rabut has a cache of photographs he took in Algeria (he has taken no photos since his return), just as Mauvignier’s father (who served 28 months in Algeria did). Mauvignier told Julian Bisson (in an interview published in France Today): “My mother used to show me pictures my father took in Algeria, where he was stationed for 28 months. In these photos there was no sign of war, or of the violence my mother would talk about. They were almost like holiday pictures, with smiling kids, nice landscapes, sun, the city of Oran. But when my father committed suicide, the question began to gnaw at me: Did the Algerian war have something to do with it? If so, who will speak about what has been silenced? What is it that has been silenced?”
It does not take much imagination to transfer the story from rural France and Algeria to the rural US and Iraq (and only a bit more to the rural US and Vietnam). Rabut and, even more so, Bertrand fail to suppress memories of atrocities (committed by both sides) in which they were involved and knowledge of France’s abandonment of the Arabs and Berbers who fought in the ranks of the colonial army (I would especially like to forget knowing of one form of retaliation against “collaborators” that Rabut recalls!).
The book is not a very easy read, not because of its syntax, but because the reader must put the pieces of what happened (and is happening in the 24-hours of the present day) together. Nick Flynn (who worked in a Boston homeless shelter into which his father came: recalled in a memoir filmed at “Being Flynn” and in the memoir of the making of the movie, “The Reenactments”) has some insightful things to say in his foreword. I don’t agree with him that “the books that come the closest to The Wound’s energies are J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Albert Camus’s The Stranger.” The murder of an Arab in Camus’s native Algeria of the latter has some similarities, but not the tone or structure; the one of Coetzee’s novel is more similar, with torture figuring centrally, and a similarly open ending. In awarding Coetzee the Nobel Prize for Literature, the prize committee categorised Waiting for the Barbarians “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror.” Though Conrad’s narrators were more detached from the stories they related, Conrad is plausible a forerunner of Mauvignier in my view.
I’ve already opined that its indirect revelation of traumas reminds me of Faulkner (and his famous statement “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” applies to the aftereffects of the Algerian counterinsurgency as well as to slavery, the US Civil War, and Jim Crow). The novel has reminded others of the movie “The Deer Hunter” (with Bertrand having a despair similar to the character played by Christopher Walken, Rabut more of a survivor, like the character played by Robert DeNiro).
Les Hommes won the Prix Virlo and the Prix de librariries, and the English translation was aided by French Voices.