Where would he go? He asked himself the question though he knew the inevitable answer—even though repugnance swept through him whenever he thought of it. Back to the States—not because he liked it, not because his antipathy to that country and its people had changed, not because he felt any less anger or bitterness or frustration at the mere thought of living there again, but because the Lulubelles were there, America’s Algerians were back there, fighting a battle harder than that of any guerrillas in any burnt mountains. Fighting the stone face.
This book, my ninth read for the Roman de Rochefort this year was originally written by Gardner Smith and published in 1963. Gardner Smith had himself moved from Philadelphia to escape racism in 1951, joining a thriving community in exile in Paris. Unlike his protagonist Simeon Brown who at the end of the book seems to know he must move back to the US, illustrated above, Gardner Smith stayed and eventually died in Paris.
Simeon Brown leaves the US to avoid committing the irreparable, killing someone, all his life he had been subject to the violence of the racist, from having his eye gouged out as a young child through random acts towards him as a young adult. As a child he had shown he had character and a certain recklessness as illustrated by the knife game:
Holding the knife like a dagger in his right hand, Simeon turned up the palm of his left. Everyone watched in amazement as he raised the knife high over the open palm. “What in hell you gonna do?” He inhaled deeply, thought of Chris and brought the knife down hard into his palm. The boys gasped; the girls squealed. The knife trembled in the palm. He had not flinched. For a moment he let the group stare at the upright knife, then pulled it brutally out of his hand. “Goddam!” a boy whispered admiringly. The girls rushed toward him. “Simeon, you’re crazy!” He let himself be led away, allowed his hand, now covered with blood, to be washed, spread with iodine and bandaged. “Goddam! Goddam!” the boys kept repeating. Simeon smiled. He was a man.
Living in Paris he makes three important friendships, first of all with Babe, another black man enjoying being treated normally, as an American in Paris but not wanting to see how the Algerians were being treated in France, like the negroes in the US. He has made a philosophy of looking the other way because, at least in part, the French authorities could expel him at any time:
“Forget it, man. Algerians are white people. They feel like white people when they’re with Negroes, don’t make no mistake about it. A black man’s got enough trouble in the world without going about defending white people.” But he was not convincing, even to himself.
The second friend he makes is Maria, a Polish Jew, survivor of the camps, a would be actress who no longer wants to see racism but to live her life. His third friend is Hossein, an Algerian member of the FLN, a man that reasons with him and lifts the curtain in Paris for him to see behind the scenes.
The further north the bus moved, the more drab became the buildings, the streets and the people. Cheap stores selling clothes, furniture, kitchen utensils: “Easy terms, ten months to pay!” Cafés became dimmer, the streets narrower and noisier, more and more children filled the sidewalks. Men out of work, with nothing to do and no place to go, stood in sullen, futile groups on street corners. Arab music blared from the dark cafés or from the open windows of bleak hotels. Then suddenly, police were everywhere, stalking the streets, eyes moving insolently from face to face, submachine guns strung from their shoulders. It was like Harlem, Simeon thought, except that there were fewer cops in Harlem.
Hossein then leaves to fight in Algeria where he is killed, leaving Simeon with the choice between being more like one of his three friends with the choice being evident for him as illustrated in the opening quote.
Published in English in 1963, republished as a New York Review Books Classic in 2021
Translated into French by Brice Matthieussent and published in 2021 by Christian Bourgois.
The quotes as read in French before translation.
Où irait-il? Il se posa la question, même s’il connaissait la réponse inévitable –et même si, chaque fois qu’il y pensait, il se sentait submergé de répugnance. Il rentrerait aux États Unis –pas parce que cette idée lui plaisait, pas parce que son antipathie envers ce pays et ses habitants avait changé, pas parce qu’il éprouvait moins de colère, d’amertume ou de frustration à la seule perspective d’y vivre à nouveau, mais parce que les Lulu Belle étaient là-bas, que les Algériens de l’Amérique étaient là-bas et qu’ils menaient une lutte plus dure que celle de n’importe quelle guérilla dans n’importe quelle montagne desséchée. Ils se battaient contre le visage de pierres.
Le prenant dans sa main droite comme une dague, Simeon tourna la paume de son autre main vers le haut. Tout le monde le regarda avec stupéfaction lever le couteau au-dessus de la paume offerte. « Bon dieu, mais tu fais quoi? » Il prit une grande inspiration, pensa à Chris et abattit violemment la lame dans sa paume. Les garçons en restèrent bouche bée;les filles crièrent. Le couteau tremblait, fiché dans sa paume. Il n’avait pas flanché Un instant, il laissa le groupe ébahi regarder le manche dressé, puis il l’arracha brutalement de sa main. « Merde alors!« lâcha un garçon admiratif. Les filles se ruèrent sur lui. « Simeon, t’es complètement barge! » Il se laissa entraîner, avec sa paume maintenant ensanglantée; puis il permit qu’on la nettoie, qu’on la bande. « Putain! Putain! » répétaient les garçons. Simeon sourit. Il était un homme.
« Oublie ça, mec. Les Algériens sont Blancs. Ils réagissent comme les Blancs quand ils sont avec des Noirs, ne t’y trompe pas. Un Noir à déjà assez de problèmes sur les bras pour ne pas se mettre à défendre des Blancs. » Mais il manquait de conviction, même pour se convaincre lui-même.