Posts Tagged Didier Daeninckx

Hidden

17 October.  A demonstration is scheduled in the heart of the city, against a curfew recently imposed on certain sections of the population.   There are about 30,000 demonstrators, men, women and children, many in their Sunday best, a signal of their peaceful intentions.   But the reception, as they emerge from the stations and move  towards their meeting place, is anything but peaceful.  The police are ready for them, their instructions to pay back one blow with ten, with the assurance that whatever happens, they have the backing of their superiors.   Of the 30,000, 11,000 are arrested.  Some of these are herded into buses and taken to a nearby sports stadium, where they are interrogated and beaten up.  Some are beaten and thrown into the river, or hung from trees and lampposts.   Probably – and we’ll never know for sure – 200 of the demonstrators are killed.

This happened in Paris, in 1961, to Algerians and others of North African origin, in the context of the Algerian War and terrorist activity by the FLN.   That it isn’t widely known about – was barely spoken of at all until the 1990s – is the result of one of the most successful cover-ups of our time.

It’s not that there were no accounts of these events at the time – the arrest, beating and murder of so many could hardly go unnoticed in the centre of Paris.    But in France itself, there was rigorous state censorship –  films and photographs were seized and destroyed, and journalists  found their reports buried or edited to match the official line that it was a riot that was firmly dealt with by the police.  This was echoed by most of the international press, who at best suggested that perhaps the police response was a tad firmer than absolutely necessary.   Amongst the Algerian community, fear of reprisals largely ensured that, even as people desperately tried to find out what had happened to family members who never came home after the demonstration, their experiences were not made public.

Simone de Beauvoir wrote about the massacre in her autobiography, drawing on her friend Claude Lanzmann’s first-hand account:

The cops were waiting for the Algerians at the exits to the Metro …  [Lanzmann] saw with his own eyes how they kicked them in the teeth and  smashed their skulls.  Bodies were found hanging from the trees on the Bois du Boulogne and others, disfigured and mutilated, in the Seine. …   Afterwards, I heard the … bare-faced lies: two dead, when we already know of more than 50.

Plaque commémorative du massacre des algériens...

Plaque commémorative du massacre des algériens lors de la manifestation du 17 octobre 1961 sous les ordres du Préfet de Police Maurice Papon, implantée sur la Passerelle de la Fraternité à Aubervilliers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That there is now a plaque on the Pont St Michel, and films and TV documentaries about that night in October 1961, is due mainly to the fact that the person in charge of the Paris police force at the time was one Maurice Papon, who in the 1980s came under scrutiny not for his treatment of Algerian demonstrators twenty years earlier, but for his complicity in the deportation of Jews from Bordeaux almost twenty years before that.    During the course of his somewhat belated trial, the connection with the massacre was brought to light.

Didier Daeninckx’s noir policier Meurtres pour la Mémoire linked the massacre with the deportations (without naming Papon) in 1984, but interestingly was not the first fictional treatment of the massacre.   Black American writer William Gardner Smith wrote The Stone Face in 1963, and Kristin Ross, in her study of the afterlife of May 68, writes that:

It is a mark of the success surrounding the official blackout of information about October 17 that Smith’s novel, written by a foreigner in France and published in the United States (it could not be published in France), would stand as one of the few representations of the event available all the way up until the early 1990s – until the moment, that is, when a generation of young Beurs, as the children of North African immigrants call themselves, had reached an age at which they could begin to demand information about their parents’ fate. Professional or academic historians have lagged well behind amateurs in the attempt to discover what occurred on October 17; investigative journalists, militants, and fiction writers like Smith, or the much more widely read detective novelist, Didier Daeninckx, kept a trace of the event alive during the thirty years when it had entered a “black hole” of memory.

For many, Michael Hanecke’s film Caché (Hidden) was the first introduction to the 17 October massacre.  There’s only a brief mention of it but nonetheless it sits at the heart of the film, a film about memory and the burying of memory.  It led me to try to find out whether – as seemed improbable at first – such a thing could have happened and left so little trace.

Cover of "Cache (Hidden)"

Cover of Cache (Hidden)

There are so many aspects of this story that fascinate.  The connection between collaboration in the deportation of Jews during the Occupation and the violent repression of dissent by French citizens of north African origin even extends to the fact that an earlier crack-down on Algerian demonstrators by Papon had involved the use of the Vel’d’Hiv as a detention centre.   And the fact that an event witnessed by so many could be so effectively hidden from view reflects the way in which the history of collaboration during the Occupation had to be dragged painfully into the light over decades.

There’s also the contrast with the public response to the brutal suppression of a demonstration in February 1962 organised by the Communist Party – the eight who were killed became the symbols of state violence during the Algerian War.   One might have thought that this would have brought the October massacre back into public consciousness, but it seems to have had the opposite effect – it was simply eclipsed.  Le Monde even reported the suppression of the Charonne demonstration as the most violent state action since 1934.   Why?  The only plausible explanation is the fact that the October demonstrators, unlike those who were killed and beaten a few months later, were overwhelmingly Algerian or North African.

Of course, the notion of an official cover-up is terribly pertinent today as we await prosecutions, 23 years after the event, in relation to Hillsborough.  In both cases, what happened was both known and not known.  Known because these things happened in public places, because there were eye-witnesses, photographs, films, newspaper articles.  Not known because, in the case of the 17 October massacre those accounts were suppressed by the machinery of the state, and in the case of Hillsborough because no matter how often the truth was published and asserted it barely seemed to dent the falsehoods that had been disseminated at the time so vigorously by the police and others.

It took forty years for the victims of the 17 October massacre to be commemorated officially.  We don’t know how many of them there were.  We don’t know all of their names, or exactly what happened to most of them.   But the events of that night in 1961 are no longer hidden.

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Reading the Detectives

What we don’t know is more interesting than what we know, both in the sciences and in the arts.  The classic detective story is a puzzle which must, to satisfy its readers, provide a solution, tie up loose ends, arrange retribution, and restore the natural order of things (typified in many of the TV detective series I recall from the 1970s by the postscript where they all go home and have tea, and a bit of a laugh, no matter how traumatic the preceding events have been). The satisfaction of the tidy ending can simultaneously be a disappointment.  The final ‘reveal’, the scene where someone (the brilliant detective’s slightly dozy sidekick, perhaps) says, ‘But what I still don’t understand is…’, allowing the brilliant detective to resolve that last apparent anomaly, leaves the reader or viewer little to ponder on once the book is closed or the credits have rolled.

To be fair, the best examples of the genre, whilst making use of its conventions and tropes, also stretch and subvert them.  The detective novels that have remained in print for decades are those which have more to satisfy the reader than merely the solving of a riddle.  We might re-read or re-watch a lesser work once, just to spot where the clues were if we’d been bright enough to pick them up, or even in the hope of finding a continuity error or plot hole, but we’re not likely to revisit them repeatedly.  In my many re-readings of, for example, Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, in contrast, it’s not the plot, but the characters, the quality of the writing that give repeated pleasure.

If the classic mystery, the ‘roman enigme’, is a puzzle to be solved, and, like a completed crossword, of limited interest thereafter, the ‘roman noir’, is a more complex and nuanced narrative.  Tellingly, it flourished in the ’40s and ’50s in France, often taking the Occupation as subject and setting (Atack, 2010), providing a medium in which the ambiguities of the era could be explored, but has also been used more recently by such writers as Didier Daeninckx, to stage ‘complex crimes that to be solved involve precisely a return to the past, to the hidden history of State and/or establishment criminality’ (Gorrara, 79) (see Daeninckx’s Meurtres pour Memoires, which uncovers two dark and hidden areas of France’s past, the massacre of Algerian demonstrators in Paris in 1961, and the wartime deportation of Jews, events linked by one man, Maurice Papon).

The roman noir takes the reader well off the tourist map, into a city of shadows and secrets, into the realm of the uncanny.  In this labyrinth, the detective wanders the streets, as shadowy and ambiguous a figure as those he tracks – indeed, as Butor said, the flaneur-detective and the criminal ‘are at bottom identical.  The second places his steps in the footprints of the first who remains unaware of him, although the former is without knowing it the initiator, the guide of the second’ (Histoire extraordinaire, p. 33).  Walter Benjamin drew on Baudelaire‘s fascination with Poe’s ur-detective story, ‘The Man of the Crowd’,  to link the flaneur and the detective when he wrote that ‘No matter what trail the flaneur may follow, every one of them will lead him to a crime’. This is highly ambiguous – is the flaneur a detective, tracking down transgressions and transgressors, or a criminal, whose wanderings are themselves transgressive and/or may lead him into crime/to commit crime?  (McDonough, 101).

Michel Butor’s Passing Time isn’t a detective novel, though one critic described it as of the fusion of this genre and the experimental novel.  But his Bleston is the perfect setting for a ‘roman noir’, a place of shadows and labyrinthine streets, a place where fear and suspicion are in the air.  Butor was ‘devouring’ detective novels at this time, and right at the heart of Passing Time, he places an exposition on the principles upon which they are constructed.  Crime novelist George Burton (alias J K Hamilton) argues that every detective novel is based around two murders, the crime itself, and the (symbolic or actual) destruction of the criminal by the detective when they are exposed, killed by ‘the explosion of truth (143-4).  The detective’s role is to ‘disturb and probe, to expose and alter things’, to tear off veils and masks, abolish errors, ignorance and lies, to cleanse ‘this small fraction of the world’ from its offence and the defilement that the murder brings with it.  According to Burton, he is:

‘the true son of the murderer Oedipus, not only because he solves a riddle, but also because he kills the man to whom he owes his title, without whom he would not exist in that capacity (without crimes, without mysterious crimes, what would he be?) because this murder was foretold for him from the day of his birth or, if you prefer, because it is inherent in his nature, through it alone he fulfils himself and attains the highest power’ (145)

The detective novel superimposes two temporal sequences, that which begins with the discovery of the crime and concludes with the discovery of its perpetrator, and that which leads up to the crime, which is reconstructed by the detective (not necessarily emerging in a linear form, but usually presented to us as such at the climax of the novel).   Similarly, Passing Time has a linear time frame beginning in May when Revel starts writing his journal, and ending in September with his departure from Bleston, but his journal narrative begins in October with his arrival, initially linear but gradually becoming ‘a desperate attempt to account for several months simultaneously, ending as the narrator leaves the town with the awareness that no year can ever be completely recovered, as the lack of time to describe the events of February 29 so symbolizes’ (Lloyd, 2005, pp 143-4).

Just as there are (at least) two time frames, there are (at least) two texts, that which gives the true version of events, which the guilty party has erased, or tried to erase, and the alternative version of events which has been superimposed upon it.  The detective’s goal is to uncover the true story from the traces left behind, to decipher and restore the palimpsest.

The detective novel itself, a green Penguin crime title, with a blank space where the author photograph normally appears, is the trigger for most of the events in the narrative. (I should say, the books themselves, since Revel buys two copies, and Ann a third.)  Revel is attracted by the ambiguity of the title – Le Meurtre de Bleston could refer at the same time to a murder committed in Bleston, and to the murder of Bleston, thus allowing him ‘to enjoy a small private revenge against this town’ (54).  But it becomes ‘an auxiliary so precious that I can almost say that a new phase of my adventure began at the instant when … I read for the first time those opening words which I now know by heart’ (55).  The precision with which the author describes the city and its monuments suggests to him that the story might be based on real events, leading him to attempt his own detective work when the book’s author is injured in an ‘accident’.  More than that, Revel feels that he’s being led along:

‘through a newspaper poster I had discovered J C Hamilton’s detective story, The Bleston Murder; through reading this I had discovered the Murderer’s Window, which in its turn had given rise to this conversation with its closing words of advice to visit the New Cathedral.  It was as though a trail had been laid for me, at each stage of which I was allowed to see the end of the next stage, a trail which was to lead me hopelessly astray’ (80).

The book(s) wander(s) through Bleston just as their owner does.  Linking all of Revel’s contacts in Bleston (his landlady, the two sisters with whom he consecutively falls in love, his colleague Jenkins, his compatriot Lucien) with the single exception of Horace Buck, the African worker who befriends him, and linking via the sisters to their friends and thus to the suspected real life counterpart of the book’s perpetrator, it is passed on, lost, replaced (in a second-hand version with an indecipherable signature), and reappears in a bewildering sequence.

The re-reading of detective novels is expounded upon here too.  Revel justifies his re-reading of The Bleston Murder on the basis that it is ‘a precious guide for a newcomer among the perplexities and misunderstandings of that city’ , but for Jenkins, an aficionado of the genre, ‘they take on a kind of transparency.  As you trace out the illusions of the beginning, you glimpse the truth that you remember more or less clearly’ (88).

Revel becomes a detective, to unravel his own past and reconstruct it.   But his quest is doomed to failure, there is no final revelation. For the writers of noir, and the nouveau romanciers, the Borgesian imminent revelation often remains imminent, unrealised, or reveals a new mystery.  If the narrator/hero finds a path through the labyrinth, ‘it is only to discover that the exit is really an entrance, that the labyrinth solved is no more than a labyrinth within a greater labyrinth’ (Porter, 256). And so nothing here is finally resolved.  Revel’s feud with the city ends with an uneasy truce (‘We are quits’ (249)), the ‘accident’ that fuels his guilt and his suspicions appears ultimately to be just an accident, the only murderers he encounters are fictional or mythical.   There is no return to the harmony of an established order.  But the process of interpreting the palimpsest, reconstructing the past, following the trail and making the links does start something, not contained within the arbitrary parameters of the narrative:

‘Thus each day, evoking other days like harmonics, transforms the appearance of the past, and while certain periods come into the light others, formerly illuminated, tend to grow dim, and to lie silent and unknown until with the passage of time fresh echoes come to awaken them.  Thus the sequence of former days is only restored to us through a whole host of other days, constantly changing, and every event calls up an echo from other, earlier events which caused it or explain it or correspond to it, every monument, every object, every image sending us back to other periods which we must reawaken in order to recover the lost secret of their power for good or evil’ (283)

Margaret Atack, ‘Representing the Occupation in the Novel of the 1950s: Ne jugez pas’, Cincinnati Romance Review, 29 (2010), 76-88

Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1961)

-   Histoire Extraordinaire: Essays on a Dream of Baudelaire’s, translated by R Howard (Jonathan Cape, 1969)

Didier Daeninckx, Meurtres pour Memoires (Paris: Gallimard, 1984)

Claire Gorrara, The Roman Noir in Post-War French Culture: Dark Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003)

Louise Hardwick (ed), New Approaches to Crime in French Literature, Culture and Film (Bern: Peter Lang, 2009)

Rosemary Lloyd, Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life (Cornell UP, 2005)

Tom McDonough, ‘The Crimes of the Flâneur’, October, 102 (2002), 101-22

Edgar Allan Poe, ‘The Man of the Crowd’, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Dennis Porter, The Pursuit of Crime: Art and Ideology in Detective Fiction (New Haven; London: Yale UP, 1981)

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