A novel set during the Algerian war has chilling relevance to what is happening in the Middle East today
An Algerian soldier fighting for the French in 1961 (JEAN POUSSIN CC BY-SA 3.0)
For many in Britain the Algerian War is a distant memory, remembered, if at all, for Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers.
As an 18-year-old I was staying with my aunt in Paris, and together we went along to the Place de la Concorde to hear De Gaulle speak. The crowd was enormous and it was memorable for me because, apart from the orderly and peaceful Aldermaston Marches, it was the first political demonstration I had been to.
De Gaulle was impressive, and it never occured to me that there were rocks under the benign surface, that behind his rhetoric was a war of terrible atrocities in which hundreds of thousands of Algerians were tortured and killed. This is the background to Lucy Beckett’s novel, which has chilling relevance to what is happening in the Middle East today. It is seen through the eyes of someone who is determinedly agnostic. We are invited to see all this in the light of Catholicism, specifically through the Confessions of St Augustine, and Pascal’s Pensées.
The Year of Thamar’s Book opens with Jamila, a librarian in Paris, married to a history teacher at a lycée, with two children: Bernard, recently graduated from university in Nantes, and Josephine, about to sit her baccalaureat.
Jamila’s mother was Algerian. She is dying and asks Jamila to find someone called Jacques Thomas, last heard of in a village in Burgundy, and to give him a wrapped box.Jamila travels down to Burgundy but at first no one knows of Jacques Thomas, until the owner of the café in which she is staying remembers an old woman called Thomas whose son, Thamar, a recluse with a badly disfigured face, still lives there. He turns out to be Jamila’s father. She gains his confidence and gets him to talk.
He begins to tell her the story of his life. He has written 400 pages of it in note form. Jamila’s son, Bernard, wants to be a writer and she suggests that he might come down and and look at them. From here, the novel tells the two stories in parallel: Jacques’ life and his growing friendship with Bernard as he tries to piece his grandfather’s story together.
Jacques/Thamar had been conscripted into the army and sent to Algeria. It is traumatic. Every night he can hear FLN prisoners being tortured, and every morning he has to bury the tortured bodies.
One night his lorry is ambushed by the FLN. He is badly wounded and thrown out of the lorry, presumed dead. He is saved by an Arab who, with his daughter, nurses him back to health. When he can walk again he has to be returned to the army, where he is disciplined as a deserter. When he finally manages to get back to Burgundy after the war he joins the Augustinian White Fathers and becomes a devout Christian.
Thamar tries to interest Bernard in Christianity, introducing him to the beauties of Romanesque architecture, in Cluny, and to the wonders of the desert in Algeria. Lucy Beckett’s writing is magical, as Bernard discovers the complexities of the Eucharist and the Catholic faith.
But Thamar’s Christianity has a cloud over it because he has fallen in love with a young Arab boy. He feels unable to take Holy Communion. One day Islamist terrorists come to his village, Thamar is clubbed down and shot — his jaw broken and his eye socket and cheek bone smashed, his face hideously scarred and twisted.
Bernard becomes increasing committed to finishing Thamar’s book, despite his father’s determination that he should return to Paris and seek properly paid employment. As he struggles with Thamar’s muddled memory, Bernard begins to see that, as Augustine said, only in God, and by God, is a man truly known. Cautiously he begins to go to Mass with Thamar.
Meanwhile his sister Josephine has run away with a North African jihadist, frightened by the prospect of her father’s likely anger at her poor baccalaureat results. She is untraceable for a year, during which time she makes no attempt to contact her parents, although she is living in Paris. She ends up in prison.
Lucy Beckett’s novel begins and ends with Jamila. It takes you on a remarkable journey through memory, politics and faith. Novels which explore and describe the seeds and nature of Catholicism today are rare, and although I am an agnostic/atheist, this one moved me considerably. Read it: it will open your eyes to what is happening in the Middle East, and make you think again about faith.