Monday, 15 October 2012

A Little Soul...

It's not often I get unsolicited books in the post, and ones I want are even rarer, but a couple of weeks ago I was very happy with the contents of my letter box.  Someone from MacLehose Press had obviously decided that I might be interested in one of their new releases, French writer Jérôme Ferrari's Where I Left My Soul.  And do you know what?  They were very right :)

Where I Left My Soul (translated by Geoffrey Strachan) is set in Algiers over three days in 1957 during the Algerian struggle for independence.  Capitaine André Degorce, a career soldier who survived spells in both Buchenwald and a Vietnamese re-education camp, has made a major breakthrough in his attempts to eradicate the Algerian resistance organisation.  Tahar, the leader of the group, has finally been found, meaning that the shadowy network operating in the city is on its last legs.

Despite the atrocities committed by both sides, Degorce treats his captive with respect, observing the niceties of a conventional war.  However, not everyone feels this way.  Lieutenant Horace Andreani, a young soldier who grew to admire Degorce during their shared time in Vietnam, believes that the enemy deserves no mercy - and when that enemy happens to be the leader of them all, nothing will prevent justice from being served...

The book alternates between Andreani's retrospective messages to his former captain - letters written at a distance of many years, filled with scorn and disgust for Degorce's weakness - and an account of the events as they happened over the three days, following Degorce as he tries to reconcile his actions with his sense of honour as a soldier.  While Andreani's accusations, surging, flowing, venomous tirades of both love and hate, show no doubt about the validity of his actions, Degorce is less fortunate.  He is portrayed as a man plagued by doubt, depressed and (more importantly) deprived of the faith he needs to keep him going.

The book is beautifully written (and translated).  In addition to the poetic vitriol spouted by Andreani, we are treated to clear, haunting images of Degorce's past experiences.  We see the brutal torture in his Algiers station, the mud and sickness of the Vietnamese re-education camps, his own torture at the hands of the Germans...  The experiences are horrible, frightening - the prose is excellent.

Where I Left My Soul is, at heart, a story of how torture leaves its mark on the torturer.  Degorce was able to survive his own incarceration relatively intact, but when the tables are turned, and he is the one attempting to extract information through unsavoury methods, he cracks.  The process is dehumanising, and he loses his faith, not only in God, but also in everyday life, finding himself unable to determine whether what he is doing is right or wrong:
"For I have also learned that evil is not the opposite of good: the frontiers between good and evil are confused, they blend into one another and become impossible to tell apart in the bleak grey light that covers everything and that is what evil is."
p.153 (MacLehose Press, 2012) 
Somewhere along the way, Degorce has left his soul behind; if only he knew where... 

It's easy to sit and judge the two main characters, Andreani with his brutal attitude of the ends justifying the means and Degorce with his hypocritical treatment of a man who is a mass murderer, but I wouldn't like to be in either position.  When it comes to war and torture (as Degorce himself remarked above), right and wrong are very difficult to tell apart.  Is it more important to avoid being brought down to the level of our enemies, or is ensuring final victory at all costs better than avoiding bloodshed?

Of course, there's a reason why a book like Where I Left My Soul has special resonance today.  While it is a novel which covers the struggle for independence in North Africa, there are obvious parallels with countless wars and uprisings of modern times.  Anyone who finds themself in a situation like that of Degorce, attempting to defeat terrorists, will have to confront these moral dilemmas on a daily basis.  But then, it's not always clear who the real terrorists are...

Where I Left My Soul is a fairly short book, but it's one that packs a punch and leaves a lasting impression.  Despite being set in a fixed place and time, it's actually a work which discusses an ever-present issue.  As Andreani says:
"Remember this, mon capitaine... What has been played out in your life has already been played out on similar stages an incalculable number of times, and the millennium just beginning will offer nothing new.  It is no secret." p.25
It's all just a little bit of history repeating...