Jérôme Ferrari’s novel Where I Left My Soul was published earlier this month, having won four literary awards in its French edition. Set in Algeria in 1957, it explores the ways in which the role of interrogator or torturer can twist and corrupt an otherwise decent man. The charity Actions by Christians for the Abolition of Torture interviewed the author about his novel in 2011 as part of a their 2011 report, “A World of Torture”.
The following is a short snippet from quite a long interview, which can be read in full on the website for the “World of Torture Report”.
How can a novelist take hold of such a sensitive topic as torture during the Algerian War of Independence and convert it into a story?
It was very difficult. This is my sixth book, but it really had to convince me. I thought a lot about the risks, especially of being completely off the mark or of writing a text where I might, unbeknownst to me, catch the reader in some sort of fascination for this topic. The main challenge for me was to manage to speak of the obscenity without writing an obscene novel.
Two testimonies taken from the French director Patrick Rotman TV documentary, L’ennemi intime [The intimate enemy], which I saw in Algiers in 2005 when I was teaching at the international high school, gave me a starting point. The first is that of the captain in Colonel Bigeard’s 3rd Colonial Parachute Regiment who, in February 1957, arrested Larbi Ben M’Hidi, the leader of the National Liberation Front (Front de libération nationale or FLN) in Algiers, and held him for several days before handing him over to General Aussaresses, who had the prisoner executed and disguised his death as a suicide. I was very impressed by the admiration with which he spoke of his enemy and I saw a first confrontation between actions and faith. This officer explains how, after the Battle of Algiers, he could not enter a church anymore and, at the end of the interview, he says something like, “I don’t believe I lost my honour in Algeria, but let’s just say I left part of my soul there”. So he also gave me a title for the book.
The second testimony comes from a person to whom I dedicated the novel, Jean‑Yves Templon, who had just come out of a Catholic high school and was performing his military service over there. He told Patrick Rotman that his second day there was the first time in his life that he saw pornographic photographs, stuck up on the wall of the barracks, and a man being tortured. He carries on with illuminating musings on the fascination both visions held for him.
There then came a long period of maturation for the emotion to become a book, with a structure, tone, voices and characters that were no longer historical characters. I wanted the narration to fit within three days and to approach the face-to-face meeting between the French officer and the Algerian prisoner by referring to the passage where Pilate is in front of Christ in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita.
How does having to face torture from the torturers’ side silence one?
I neither want nor can speak of torturers in general; I can only imagine what happens in a character’s head, and all the more so as not all people who torture react the same way. I even fear some of them enjoy the sleep of the righteous without any problem. But the character of André Degorce corresponds to a historic reality, to this officer who expresses insurmountable unease in the documentary. So I imagined that this captain was the victim of the disconnection between how, intellectually, he understood the need of things and how he lived them emotionally. I guess that, at the time, the French soldiers must have seen the practice of torture during the Battle of Algiers as necessary for the greater good. In fact, that’s the general tenor of any logical justification of torture, and always with that reference to the innocent victims that must be saved. Deep down, André Degorce doesn’t forgive himself for adopting this discourse. What’s more, for all his inner movements of remorse and guilt, absolutely nothing leads to anything and, all things considered, he performs his work as a torturer with the same efficiency as would a person without any moral concerns.
So what distinguishes the two torturers appearing in your work, Lieutenant Andreani and Captain Degorce?
Instead of opposing one officer who applies torture to another who refuses to do so, I thought it would be more interesting to confront two characters whose acts are not that dissimilar, but who experience them differently. Neither did I want Horatio Andreani, a non-believer, to be a fool or a pervert. He “over-assumes” responsibility for his acts, and does so with such cynicism and such exaggeration that the reader may suspect this is mere posturing and wonder, in the end, just who it is who speaks in the title.