The massacres of October 17, 1961 are among the dark pages of Franco-Algerian history. The face of stone by William Gardner Smith evokes this disastrous day when the French police repressed the demonstrations organized in Paris by the National Liberation Front (FLN) to protest against the curfew imposed on Algerians after 8:30 p.m.
If it was not translated into French until 2021, William Gardner Smith’s novel was first published in 1963, under the title The Stone Face. A pioneer, the American journalist born in Philadelphia in 1927 wrote in real time on a subject that was not only taboo but also censored.
“What a cool trick”
The massacres of October 17, 1961 only appear at the end of the novel. The plot is tied around the Algerian condition in Paris during the war of independence, seen by Simeon Brown. His career resembles that of William Gardner Smith, an African-American journalist who settled in Paris.
France – Algeria: indelible October 17, 1961
The protagonist, a young man under thirty, decides to leave the United States to have peace. To a friend, he explained his experience on the streets of New York and Philadelphia: “On ordinary days, nothing notable happens, people don’t even notice you on the street. Yet, a thousand tiny things happen – microparticles, nobody sees them, except us. And there is always the danger of something more serious happening. The Beast in the Jungle, you are constantly on the lookout, you wait for it to pounce. It’s terrible, yes. And we want to breathe, we don’t want to think about this race thing around the clock. »
Ordinary racism and raw violence
Simeon Brown has experienced ordinary racism, the one that goes through looks and insults. And also by the rawest violence when he was shot by a Polish gang leader because he was driving in a white neighborhood. When he was beaten up by police in a police station on the pretext that he had refused to answer the agents who called him Joe Louis, the name of the former African-American boxing world champion. When he found himself coerced by an old white man into backing onto the bus to the blacks-only area and then having to light his cigarette for him as further humiliation.
[Série] Algeria-France: at the heart of the Évian agreements, 60 years later
To escape the desire for murder that he felt rising in him, Simeon chose to go to Paris: “there is a new Lost Generation in Europe, full of Black Americans (sic) who live in Paris or Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Rome, Munich, Barcelona, who came here to escape this pression, If you know what I mean ? And who will never leave. Some days, when we walk in the streets, we meet so many black Americans that it’s like being back in Harlem. »
Culture shock is brutal and gives rise to unexpected situations. Seated in a cafe, Simeon approaches a white woman he likes. She does not respond to his advances and by “a conditioned reflex”, he sees racism in her attitude. A few moments later, the woman is joined by an African with whom she leaves arm in arm.
Several weeks later, when he is part of a small cosmopolitan band, he finds himself in a jazz club. Four white Americans from Utah want to start a conversation and the discussion degenerates into racial slurs. The boss of the box intervenes and expels the four intruders who are astonished: “How is that? Are you crazy or what? You gon’ kick some white people out and keep the niggas (sic)? William Gardner Smith thus poses the framework of a Paris refuge for blacks in the 1960s where, for example, the unthinkable in the United States is a non-event: mixed couples. He is not fooled that these transformations are circumstantial: “I have seen greenhorns become negrophiles – at least during their stay ici. »
Beating in the street
At the edges of this near-ideal painting, there are blind spots. As soon as he arrived at Saint-Lazare station, he noticed “these men who were walking towards him in a group, with crimped hair and skin that was not quite white, but certainly not black? They had a sad, dejected, furious look, a look that Simeon knew from having seen him in the streets of Harlem. Later, he sees a policeman bludgeoning an Arab in the middle of the street, a beating that reminds him of his own.
When Algiers served as a refuge for African-American activists
In small touches, William Gardner Smith draws a parallel between black Americans in the United States and Algerians in France. Thus, Hossein, a of the Algerians with whom he became friends, said to him: “Here, we are the niggers (sic)! Do you know what the French call us? Bicot, melon, raton, nor’af. It means “negro” in French. When, later, he asks Simeon what he thinks of the Goutte d’Or accommodation that he rents in a 3*8 with two other people, the African-American journalist replies: “It reminds me of the slums from Harlem or Philadelphia. »
Simeon lives in the Paris of the Latin Quarter, that of artists and intellectuals. During his first meeting with the group of Algerians close to the FLN, Hossein says to him: “Hey, what does it feel like to be a white man? He who lived under segregation is surprised by this reversal of the situation. He experimented with what would today be called white privilege: “You couldn’t walk down the street in a street on the left bank without coming across mixed couples, black and white, but the blacks here, Africans, West Indians or Americans, were not working class or generally poor. They were students, artists, people with lucrative jobs. ‘Respectable’ people. This contrasts with the fate reserved for the Algerians: “Simeon remembers that he had never seen an Algerian with a French woman. »
Our way of waging war is necessary – there is no other possible way.
The young man is torn: should he engage with the Algerians whose oppressed condition he feels in solidarity with? Should he live carefree, his love affair with Maria, as the young Polish Jewish actress asks him, who herself experienced the Nazi concentration camps where her parents died? All the characters are shattered, for various reasons. And they have their dark side. Thus, the author brings together anti-Semitism in the black community in the United States and that of the Algerian community in France. He warns against the confusion that can arise between the hatred of an entire people and the violence inherent in armed struggle. Ahmed, an Algerian student, draws the line: “Our way of waging war is necessary – there is no other possible way. But you shouldn’t take a liking to it.”
The face of stone is part of an era: that of the raids, concentration camps, torture which targeted the Algerians during the war of independence. We also find implicitly other African dramas, such as the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. At the same time that it speaks of History, this novel is contemporary. It deals, in surprisingly modern terms, with subjects like race, integration, etc. It is also a story of broken destinies whose personal cracks feed dilemmas, one of which runs through the book: should we choose between love and the political cause? Died in 1974 in Thiais (France), William Gardner Smith found the weapons to fight injustice from a distance with his pen dipped in the black ink of literary commitment.
The face of stone, by William Gardner Smith, translation by Brice Matthieussent, Christian Bourgois editor, 274 pages, 21 euros