Monday, June 06, 2016

Didier Daeninckx - Murder in Memoriam

History often illuminates the present and surprisingly this crime novel is a wonderful example of that. Set in the 1980s, the novel follows the seemingly random killing of a young man, then looks backward to the horrific and barely remembered events of October 17 1961 when French policemen massacred up to 300 Algerians who were taking part in a peaceful protest against repression in their home country.

In the 1960s Algeria was a colony of France. Its people fiercely repressed where fighting an, ultimately successful, struggle for liberation. The French government was unafraid of using torture, heavy repression and military might to attempt to hold back the resistance movements. In October 1961 that violence reached the streets of Paris when the police were officially given the nod to use whatever means they liked to clear the streets. At the head of the police was Maurice Papon, a veteran of Vichy, heavily implicated in the anti-Jewish crimes of that wartime state. His prejudices no doubt played a key role in events that led to armed policemen throwing dead and wounded Algerians into the Seine.

This is the backdrop to the novel's investigation. The contemporary crime linking back to another that took place at the same time as hundreds of Algerians were being massacred. The central character is Inspector Cadin, a man who seems unafraid of stirring up a hornet's nest as he delves into the murky past of the French police. Like all great literary detectives Cadin is unorthodox in his methods and his sympathies - though the romantic sub-plot doesn't work in my opinion. The final explanation, which I won't ruin here, is shocking within the confines of the story. But in the context of French politics must have been like a bomb going off. Cleverly the author brought together the dirty, dark realities of post-war French society - institutional racism, police brutality, right-wing governments colluding with the far right and violence used against the states' enemies, including its own citizens.

As we try to understand more recent violence and massacres in Paris, this novel helps us understand that these crimes never take place in a vacuum, and they can never be separated off from history, particularly the brutal and murderous crimes of the colonial state.

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