Accounts of exile from a country that no longer exists

The Algerian war has become an essential theme of literary re-entry. Time could have done its work and healed the wounds, it only left the traumas to the children or grandchildren of the main actors of these dark years even if, from now on, the wounds are less alive. With words and memories freeing themselves, the new generations feel the need to tell or revisit in the form of fiction what seems to them to be a founding element of family history, even a centerpiece of their own history. We remember the magnificent A wolf for man, by Brigitte Giraud (Flammarion, 2017) who told the story of the author’s father, called to Algeria, very beautiful the art of losing, by Alice Zeniter (Flammarion, 2017) who recounted the story of the harki grandfather of the writer or the prolific In the thickness of the flesh, by Jean-Marie Blas de Roblès (Zulma, 2017), who narrated in epic form the Algerian family history. Even the noir novel ended up seizing the subject with, in particular, You will sleep when you are dead, by François Muratet (Joëlle Losfeld, 2018) which features a French Muslim leading a hunting commando section made up of harkis, a complex character inspired by the author’s father-in-law.

This fall is no exception to the rule with the publication of two wonderful stories inspired by a shattered family history or at least struck by the Algerian war. With the Tailor of Relizane (Stock) et Algiers, rue des Bananiers (Verdier), Olivia Elkaim and Béatrice Commengé make us relive those years of happiness then of disappointment and terror which preceded, for the French of the country, the independence of Algeria. In very different genres, more romantic and emotional for Elkaim, more literary for Commengé, these two authors deliver precious testimony to what was the French presence in Algeria and the daily life of those who have long been called “feet. black”.


Relizane’s tailor is Marcel, Olivia Elkaim’s grandfather, a magnificent character with all restraint and humanity. One night in October 1958, on the third floor of a building in Relizane, a town located on the road connecting Algiers to Oran, Marcel was woken up from sleep by a handful of men who put a bag over his head and tied him up. hands and throw him in a truck to take him to an unknown destination. He is convinced that he will be executed by men from the FLN. Viviane, his wife, is desperate. It is not that she loves him, but she could not live without him, she is already having a hard time managing her two boys, Pierre (Olivia Elkaim’s father) and Jean. She hates her heavy body and her ungrateful face, and even more this Relizane where Marcel trained her, “Arid plain, scorching desert eight months of the year which forced her to change twice a day and to sleep rolled up in wet sheets. She would have to put up with this Cayenne subjected to the invasions of grasshoppers, mosquitoes the size of the thumb and where cholera and typhoid epidemics were still rife ”. It is not for nothing that Relizane, in Berber, means “burnt hill”.

Marcel will not be executed. If we came to pick him up in the middle of the night, it was to ask him to cut costumes for the fighters, a very beautiful introductory scene. And also to advise him to take as apprentice the nephew of the chief, Reda. He’ll just have to keep the details of that night a secret. And, later, when the situation becomes tense in Relizane and some French people will be attacked or even killed, Marcel and his family will benefit from a kind of tacit protection from the FLN until, with the war in full swing, an anonymous voice will advise Marcel, by telephone, to leave the country as quickly as possible because it is no longer possible to protect him.

The tearing away from this native land is terrible, but even worse the welcome reserved for Marcel and his family in France. There, they are considered less than nothing, animals barely good to live in an unsanitary cellar among the rats. This is one of the great strengths of Olivia Elkaim’s story, she describes without embellishment the contempt and even the hatred then aroused by the Pieds-Noirs expelled from Algeria, a climate whose heaviness we can hardly imagine today. “One day, I was sharing a meal with my father and he said to me: ‘You know, what we went through when we arrived here was the quarter-world’, I knew they had been accommodated in a cellar but I never imagined it had been so horrible ”, Olivia Elkaim explained to us. Why did you feel, at a little over 40, the need to write this book? “I hid family history for many years because I was suffocated by nostalgia for my grandparents and my father, and especially by this“ blackfoot ”folklore, a word that I cannot stand: Arcadi, Enrico Macias, couscous-meatballs… I wanted to be a perfect Parisienne and not feel dirty because I was literally considered a pied-noir. I went so far as to marry what my grandfather called a “blanc-bec”, the reverse of a pied-noir, and when I found myself alone with my two children, this inner exile summoned the exile of my grandparents. I had in mind this Algerian proverb, “if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you are going”, I wanted to understand where I came from and I discovered the story of my grandfather. He died in 2010 and I still mourn him. “ For this author and journalist at life, that his specialization in bioethics helped a lot to reflect on life and death, the personal repression concerning Algeria is undoubtedly like the collective repression on this war in France.


Béatrice Commengé’s story is quite different because knowingly devoid of any nostalgia. It is almost an exercise in literary anthropology, very literary, we want to underline all the sentences because they are so beautiful. Everything starts from her father’s library, transported from the villa in Algiers to the house in Périgord where the author lives a large part of the time now. “This” corridor library “as it was called in the family, was in reality a whole life resuscitated, this short life of French Algeria, she writes. Chance had given me birth on a piece of land whose history could be inscribed between two dates, as on a grave: 1830-1962. A story that, like all stories, could not have happened. Like a body, French Algeria was born, had lived, had died. Born and died in the pain of spilled blood. “ The emotion sometimes emerges behind the description of a place or a loved one, but we feel that the author wants to keep her at a distance. Unlike Olivia Elkaim, Béatrice Commengé lived in French Algeria where she was born in 1949 and above all, unlike Olivia Elkaim’s grandparents and father, her parents were not expelled from the country since they left in 1961, a year before the great departure of the Pieds-Noirs. “I would not have been able to write this book, with this joie de vivre that it recounts, if my father had not had the flair to leave sooner., she told us. And then it coincided for me with the end of my childhood, when I left Algeria I told myself that I would be stateless and therefore free. I was extremely lucky to have parents who had a taste for happiness, especially my father. ”

Béatrice Commengé only writes about fifteen lines a day and you can tell, each sentence is chiseled slowly, carefully. “I left the premises. What I have been looking for is total singularity. I designed this book as a series of tables to try to achieve some sort of objectivity. In this story, there are not the good guys and the bad guys, I didn’t want any judgment. “ No judgment, no nostalgia, but regret all the same that his father did not have time to read this book. Olivia Elkaim, she almost lived live reading the Relizane tailor by her father: tears of emotion, thanks … until he fell on the back cover which specifies that Olivia Elkaim is “of Algerian origin”. “” We are not of Algerian origin! “ he exclaimed as his ancestors were born there and so was he, the author is surprised. For me, it’s a way of denying that part of him. “ Another generation, another feeling.

Alexandra Schwartzbrod

Olivia Elkaim The Tailor of Relizane, Stock, 348pp, 20,90 euros

Beatrice Commengé, Algiers, rue des Bananiers, Verdier, 128 ::, 14 euros


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