Il est doux d’essuyer, d’une main secourable,
Des larmes d’un ami que le malheur accable.
It is bittersweet to wipe, with a helping hand,
The tears of a friend weighed down by misfortune.
Étienne Vigée: Les aveux difficiles (1783)
“Tiens, tu as du courrier.” (Here, there’s a letter for you.) The pion was holding an envelope out to T., who lifted his head in surprise. Drawing his brows together, and holding it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger as if it were an unexploded bomb, he looked at it uncomprehendingly. A letter? For him?
After bringing the serving plates to the canteen table around which T and his friends were sitting, the pion had returned with the letter. For those who don’t know the French educational system, a pion is usually a university student earning some extra cash by working as a school monitor or quasi-prefect. Prefects are not chosen from amongst sixth form pupils, as in Britain.
He ran his finger under the flap of the envelope, took out the letter, unfolded it and started reading it under the curious gaze of his friends. They seemed to sense that it contained bad news, which it did — very bad news. T. lifted his head and stared at his friends, his eyes blank and unseeing, as the world around him seemed to fall away. His heart was still beating — it hadn’t stopped — but his chest felt hollow. He carefully refolded the letter and put it back into its envelope, his hands moving as if some inexperienced puppeteer were controlling them remotely.
The letter, from the French military command, informed him, in no uncertain terms, that his request for a deferment of his national service had been refused, as it had missed the deadline by a whisker. He would have to report to barracks the following October, barely a few months away. T’s throat seemed to close up, but he managed to croak, “My request for a deferment has been refused; I’ve been called up!”
His friends did not seem overly saddened by this news, with only Kamel remaining silent. They made a few tasteless jokes at T’s expense, and Salah, clasping his hands to his chest, had declaimed, in the best melodramatic tradition,”Alas, what a shame! To see such a promising career cut short — a future in ruins! Such a loss for humanity! SO tragic!” before turning back to his meal without further ado. T. pushed his plate towards Kamel — he had suddenly lost his appetite.
The pieds noirs had just set up the rebel Comités de Salut Publique (Committees for Public Safety) in most of Algeria’s big cities. Their more extremist members were calling for the return of an elderly retired general, called Charles de Gaulle, to manage the worsening situation in Algeria, and wanted those fighting for Algerian independence to be eliminated once and for all — and by any means necessary.
Their term for this was pacification (peacekeeping), a euphemism for military intervention. It was easier to make the general public swallow this escalation of violence when it was used in terms of guaranteeing security rather than those of increasing violent repression. But they had learnt the thrill of the kill, the sick joy that comes with indiscriminate violence and destruction, and their tactic of pacification would begin its inexorable slide into genocide. Genocide — eight letters to describe more murder and pain than the human mind can comprehend.
T’s mind careered around like a runaway horse, headed in new and terrible directions, and, try as he might, he could not rein it in. Without a deferment, he could no longer stay on at school. The only thing left for him was to choose how he wanted to die. He could go ahead and be conscripted into the French army, but by doing this he would bring not only shame on his family by joining the enemy’s ranks, but risked being killed in the very next ambush of a French army patrol by FLN forces.
Or he could desert, go underground and join the maquis with others from his village. With hindsight, he probably wouldn’t have lasted a month. As a result of la bleuïte, the campaign of whispers and rumours fomented by capitaine Léger, all students joining the maquis were considered as potential traitors and coldly executed as such by the very fighters they had gone to join.
For T, it was as if the world had suddenly ground to a halt. What was even worse — he had nobody to help or advise him. He did not tell anyone when he went back to the bakery that evening – not his mother or brothers and especially not his uncles. He knew full well that they would push him to join the maquis, seeing it as a heaven-sent opportunity to get rid of him for good.
He started desperately searching for a solution. How could he go directly to the French military to plead his case when the FLN had a reputation for slitting the throat of anyone they suspected of being a traitor? Strangely enough, it was one of his pied noir classmates who helped him out by telling him about a little-known school office whose officials apparently were there to assist any student with problems relating to their conscription.
So, after classes the very next day, T found himself knocking hesitantly on the door of an office hidden in the bowels of the school building. It opened to reveal the smiling face of a pied noir, who ushered T in with further ceremony. After listening to his story, monsieur Mundweiler, for that was his name, swiftly reassured the frightened teenager. No, it wasn’t too late; yes, he could help him; yes, he knew the people to contact to have T’s case reviewed before his call-up date.
T began to see a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel that had seemed, a few minutes before, like a black hole waiting to swallow him up.
Monsieur Mundweiler helped T compose letters requesting a new deferment of his call-up on the grounds that he had lost his father and was the sole mainstay of his family. The official also found out the names of the organisations to which they were to be sent, and even aided him in the drafting of his responses. He suggested that T sign up for a military training course — a PME or Préparation Militaire Elémentaire, giving him a maximum number of points which might sway the members of the Conseil de Révision (Military Service Tribunal) in his favour when making their final decision.
So it was in a Army camp located somewhere between Belfort and Bellevue that T found himself every Thursday, sweating with fear, balancing on a narrow wooden beam placed six metres from the ground. He would crawl on his stomach under camouflage nets fixed close to the ground, clasping a rifle against his chest, and haul himself bodily up ropes dangling from the ceiling. As he was only seventeen and a half years of age, he was in peak physical condition, and had no difficulties in completing the daunting obstacle courses. He also found out that he was an extraordinarily gifted sharpshooter. If nothing else, a career as a sniper lay ahead of him.
This military training had certain lasting effects, some of which I noted when I came to know him better. He hated heights. He always won the cuddly toy when we went into shooting galleries along the Promenade on visits to my parents in Blackpool. He could pull himself to the top of a climbing rope using only his arms. All this under the admiring gaze of someone who couldn’t even climb up a metre of a climbing rope in school gym lessons, even when using her feet, and would end up twisting and turning forlornly on the end of the rope like a fob on a watchchain.
T earned in this way the maximum three hundred and forty-one points. He finally obtained a response from the French military authorities in November 1960, after a wait of eighteen months, saying that the decision concerning his conscription had been postponed until 1962. By that time, of course, Algeria was independent.
Whatever the circumstances, generalisation is, at best, an inefficient method of judging people and, although most pieds noirs were inherently racist, there is no doubt in my mind at all that T is here today thanks to a sympathetic classmate and a minor school official called Mundweiler.