In his new novel, Algerian writer Anouar Benmalek deals with the disappearance of Tasmanian Aborigines.
by Michelle Griffin.
The Age, Melbourne, Australia
Algerian novelist Anouar Benmalek does not remember the title of the history book that inspired him to write a novel about a 19th-century Tasmanian Aboriginal orphan, but he can quote the passage that caught his attention.
Through his interpreter, an avuncular Australian who has little hope of interrupting the novelist when he is in full impassioned flight, Benmalek explains that he was researching a novel about Algerians and French communards deported to New Caledonia in 1872. On discovering that an Algerian man and a French woman escaped together to Australia, he began to read up on their destination. Then he came across a comma that he says changed the course of his novel:
"The Tasmanian tiger disappeared in about 1916 - comma - at the same time as the last of the Aborigines were massacred by the English."
Fascinated by a story he'd never heard before, Benmalek read up everything he could on Tasmanian Aboriginal history, and the result was his novel The Child of An Ancient People, published in France in 2000. In France, Benmalek's elemental account of inhumanity was as widely praised as his earlier books about Algeria. But in Australia for the first time last month, Benmalek was nervous about the response he might get for reimagining genocide from the Aboriginal point of view. The book's translator, Sydney academic and literary critic Andrew Riemer, had already brought up most of the issues with him at a meeting in Paris.
The novel's dedication sets off alarm bells for Australian readers: "To Truganini, who died on the 8th of May 1876, the last representative of the Aboriginals of Tasmania, a people wiped off the surface of the earth by a perfect genocide: its victims forgotten, the murderers free of blame.".... "Nobody can deny that the last full-blooded Aborigines, the last of that community died," he says through his interpreter. "He's very aware of the delicate nature of writing about this."
"What was new (for me) was to try and create a memory, to ask what is it to be the last, what is this experience? The Aboriginal community of Flinders Island knew they would be the last, they spent their time crying because they knew no children could be produced and they would disappear. Even if we say Truganini was not the last, these people think that they're the last."
On the day we met, a packed house listens to Robert Manne debate Tasmanian genocide with Keith Windschuttle. Benmalek, who was staying with his friend, Vic Health chief executive Rob Moody, is nervous about these questions, if prepared, acknowledging the controversy of his book in English.
"I realise the questions are very real today. You know what I want to say is that a crime is a crime even it was done in the 19th century..." And then into French. "He wouldn't want to change a word fundamentally in his novel," says the interpreter.
Throughout the interview, Benmalek segues from his fourth language, English, to his second French. (Arabic is his first language, Russian his third, and he also speaks some Dutch.) He spent his first trip to Australia attending the Age Melbourne Writers' Festival, speaking at various Alliances Francais, and visiting both a Tasmanian Aboriginal community centre (where he didn't speak with anyone) and Uluru.
"I tell you, le desert Australien et le desert Algerien..." The translator steps in: "Deserts are fundamentally the same, even though there are differences and although he could tell you about the differences, the Algerian and Australian deserts are fundamentally the same."
Benmalek says something about les chameaux. "Especially when you add camels to both!"
Benmalek's previous novel, The Lovers of Algeria, drew on topics closer to home. It was inspired by the relationship of his Algerian grandfather and his Swiss grandmother, who was a trapeze artist in a travelling circus. "It was a wonderful thing to have a grandmother who could really fly," Benmalek jokes. The book, which set their love affair against a backdrop of 20th century Algerian history, was a bestseller in France, selling 250,000 copies.
Benmalek, the mathematician son of a sociology professor, jokes that he became a writer to impress a girl who claimed to be very artistic. "What can a mathematician do to impress a girl? Nothing. So I did what anyone can do, and got pen and paper and wrote poems. And from bad poems to less bad poems to short stories to novels." The girl, he says, was "a mythomane" who lied about her accomplishments, but "I am grateful to her anyway".
Benmalek fled Algeria in 1992, during the first wave of terrorism by Islamic fundamentalist militants, the Islamic Salvation Army (or AIS). Now he lives in France with his wife and two young children, and teaches medical statistics at university in Paris, writes articles about Algeria "in my life as a citizen", and writes novels "as my right and duty as an individual who wants to express himself".
Benmalek has just returned to Paris to start a new academic year and to promote his latest novel, a science-fiction story spanning 28,000 years of human history about "what it is like to be homo sapiens. "I think humans - homo sapiens - is a cruel species," says Benmalek, with a conviction that comes from experience. After a widespread uprising in Algeria in 1988 was viciously suppressed by the army, Benmalek, then a maths teacher at the University in Algiers, helped organise the Algerian Committee Against Torture, which recorded and published testimony of the victims.
"Life is strange," says Benmalek. "At this time, I thought the most horrible thing that could happen to me was to be taken by the military, and after this time, with the beginning of the atrocities of the Islamic terrorists..." He swings into rapid French and the translator explains that while the army was only torturing and killing political dissidents, the Islamic militants would kill you or your children or your relatives. "The fear of the army became extremely relative compared to that," says Benmalek, who was raised as a Muslim but no longer believes in God. "If I did believe, I would have a lot of questions to ask Him."
Benmalek does return to Algeria to visit his mother and his brother, but as a political dissident he has learned to keep a very low profile. He never returns to his old apartment, but stays in secret with friends.
Benmalek's big idea, the one he explores in all his writing, is the universality of human suffering, and he often plays this out across language and cultural barriers. "You will notice that I never describe what people look like, I only say what they are feeling inside, which is the same everywhere."
Ultimately, questions about cultural specifics are pushed aside: "If you accept that we are all human beings with the same feelings, love, hate etcetera... the place where you live is only a decoration. The profound feeling, the suffering, is the same for everybody, and I am very sure of that. My mother is Moroccan, my father is Algerian, my grandmother is Swiss, another is German, I have an ancestor on my mother's side is a slave. After this, if you think people are different deeply, you cannot learn something."
The Child of an Ancient People is published by Harvill.
Anouar Benmalek was born in Casablanca in 1956 and is one of Algeria's most respected Writers. After the 1988 riots in protest at government policies, he became one of the founders of the Algerian Committee against Torture.