That Devil’s Madness is the second novel of Dominique Wilson, who wrote The Yellow Papers, a book I really liked. (See my review). This book is even better, signalling to me that Dominique Wilson is an author to follow.
It’s a fascinating novel, set mostly in North African Algeria, formerly a French colony until its post-war independence. It begins in 1896 when Marius de Dercou from Sablières in France takes up the opportunity to acquire land in the colony, taking his son Louis with him. There, starting with almost nothing, he makes a successful new life for himself, and significantly, Louis develops a strong friendship with a local Tuareg boy called Imez.
Awareness of and respect for the dispossessed indigenous people is a strong theme in the novel. En route to his destination Marius is given plenty of advice about how to get started by the French captain of his escort and by Bertin, the local military administrator of Aïn Azel. Their knowledge of the relative merits of the local Arabs, Turks and Berbers are marked by complacent cultural assumptions and an inherent sense of European superiority. Occasionally the author is a little heavy-handed, as when in an unlikely exchange Bertin recounts an anecdote about his daughter Therese objecting to the custom of paying Arab labourers in kind rather than with money, but the captain’s explanations have a more authentic tone:
‘Now the Jews, you don’t have to worry about them,’ the captain explained. ‘We had them all become naturalised as French some time ago, and they’re no trouble. It’s the Muslims you have to be careful of. We tried to get them naturalised, but they refused. Wouldn’t give up their religion and become Christians.’
‘Does becoming naturalised make you a Christian? Did the Jews become Christians?’
‘No, no! No need for them to do that. We just made it a condition for the Muslims, but they refused…’ The captain shook his head, perplexed as to why one would refuse such an opportunity. ‘You’ll find them a strange lot, I think.’
This captain then goes on to explain that there are various Berber tribes, but it’s difficult to tell them apart (except for the Tuaregs who wear blue and whose men, not women, cover their faces), but that they’re all the same with their claim that
they own the land the settlers are trying to cultivate. Of course they don’t own it at all. They never stay in one place, so how could they own it? (p. 59)
Parallel with the story of Louis, his eventual marriage and his reluctant departure from Algeria because of the war of independence, is the compelling story of his grand-daughter Nicolette. Nicolette grows up in Melbourne with few memories of her birthplace, and in the 1970s has a painful relationship with a Vietnam vet who struggles to overcome what is obviously PTSD. A tragedy takes place which is a catalyst for Nicolette to take up a career as a photo-journalist, leading her to Algeria in 1978 to cover the impending death of Algeria’s first president Boumedienne, an event which is expected to provoke a power vacuum and factional conflict.
The two strands of the novel come together in a nail-biting conclusion. Nicolette finds herself struggling to find her identity in what was then a man’s world of journalism, but she also has to confront the reality that she cannot count on old loyalties. Whatever her friendships were in the past, she was one of the pieds-noirs (black shoes, meaning a French colonialist) and those involved in the current conflict have suffered too much under French repression to owe her anything. Her old friend Jamilah is scornful even that Nicolette in far away Australia has been insulated from the troubles of her homeland, and forces a bewildered Nicolette to face up to some home truths. But Jamilah’s harshness is the least of what Nicolette eventually confronts. This theme of friendship in conflict with ideology, and the way that war will test long-held bonds of affection was a feature of The Yellow Papers too.
Characterisation is a strength of this novel, and Nicolette’s character is particularly well drawn, showing as it does her growth from a young woman preoccupied by domestic grief to awareness that in other places around the world, life is more extreme. In Melbourne she finds that
… over time she was able to accept that she’d always have this feeling of loss deep inside her, this part of her missing forever. It was just a part of who she was now, and it always would be, and she knew now that she could live with that, no matter how hard it was. (p.73)
But when she witnesses atrocities in Algeria, she comes to understand that the fight for freedom can change a person irrevocably in a different way. Confronted by bodies that she must photograph if she wants to be taken seriously as a photo-journalist, she realises that hatreds make survivors deny the humanity of their opponents, and that ethical choices are hard to make. She learns the hard way that others will exploit naïveté and that trust is a luxury soon lost. Louis, her grandfather, who after a lifetime in Aïn Azel thinks of himself not as French anymore, but as Algerian, is equally conflicted:
Louis shook his head. Who knew what was right or wrong anymore? Since All Saints’ Day that November 1st three years ago, when the Front de Liberation National – or the FLN, as they were more commonly known – declared war on the French through simultaneous attacks on buildings, police stations and even communication facilities, the whole country had disintegrated into an arena of atrocities and counter-atrocities, where both the French and the Algerians sacrificed their youths and their hopes. (p.267)
The settings are superb. Early in the book Marius and Louis are caught in a sandstorm, and the reader can almost taste sand in the mouth.
The wind howled and the air was pregnant with sand and dust. Louis clung to his father, holding the edge of the blanket as close to his body as possible, trying to prevent the grit-laden wind from entering his mouth and nostrils and turning his eyelids into sandpaper. The air became hotter still. For an eternity he was only aware of the wind screeching, attacking. The grit that stung every bit of exposed flesh like minute angry gnats. He thought he heard the mule scream. In this demonic nightmare of raging winds Louis fought to breathe, not daring to open his mouth, his eyes, sure he would die. On and on and on the wind sandblasted his skin in spite of the blanket and Louis felt panic struggle to overtake him but for the reassuring arm of his father holding him close. (p. 76)
I can’t do better than to quote Peter Goldsworthy from the blurb at the back of the book when he says that That Devil’s Madness is
A kind of Quiet American set in Algiers, a unique densely crafted novel in which the various strands of story-DNA – part multi-generational family saga, part Greene-land war zone, part Camus-like moral maze – entwine with the DNA of its characters – pieds noirs, Berbers, Australians – in a formal, satisfying helix.
That Devil’s Madness is a compelling narrative with an uncompromising conclusion. Despite some irritating proof-reading errors, it’s destined to be one of my best books of 2016.
Author: Dominique Wilson
Title: That Devil’s Madness
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2016
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge.