Radical Incisions

Critical assessments of Joseph Andras usually start – and remain – at the centre of controversy. In 2016, the young author’s first novel, De nos frères blessés, won the highly prestigious prix Goncourt du premier roman. To the consternation of the French literary establishment, Andras declined the award – the first writer to do so since Julien Gracq in 1951 – stating in a letter to the Académie his conviction that ‘competition and rivalry’ were ‘foreign notions to writing and creation’. Literature, he declared, ought to ‘closely guard its independence and keep its distance from podiums, honours and projectors’. He affirmed instead a ‘profound desire to stick to the text, to words, to its inherent ideals, to the concealed speech of a worker and militant for social and political equality.’

The scandal of this rejection dominated coverage of the novel in the French press, and fuelled speculation about Andras’s identity. With ‘Joseph Andras’ revealed to be a pseudonym, rumours circulated that he was in fact a famous author in disguise. This was dubbed the ‘Andras Affair’ by the literary critic Pierre Assouline, who suggested the author’s potential association with communitarian anarchist group the Invisible Committee and those arrested in the Tarnac Affair on charges of sabotage. Others accused Andras of bad faith, arguing that his refusal of the honour and insistence on anonymity were designed to drum up greater renown by creating a kind of negative celebrity. The anglophone reception last year, when the novel was published in English as Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, tended to follow suit – fetishizing Andras’s reclusion and refusal at the expense of his writing and, just as significantly, his politics. 

De nos frères is a visceral portrait of Fernand Iveton, the only ‘European’ executed for terrorism during the Algerian War. Iveton, a Communist pied-noir affiliated with the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), was arrested during a failed attempt to bomb the gasworks factory where he worked on the outskirts of Algiers. While the intention was to destroy property, not human life, Iveton was nonetheless sentenced to death in February 1957. Andras recounts his story on two temporal levels in loosely alternating chapters: the first retracing the narrative of Iveton’s arrest, imprisonment, torture, trial, and eventual execution despite several appeals (voted against by Mitterrand, then Minister of Justice); the second his relationship with his wife Hélène, a Polish Jew whose family supported the resistance during German occupation. This unfolds mostly in the third person, but there are moments where we are granted access to Iveton’s thoughts, in letters from prison, slips into free indirect style – fictional techniques that Andras has discarded in subsequent works. The prose is electric, dense and deliberate, deftly shifting between registers ­– at one moment abrupt and declarative, the next flowing, sonorous and alliterative.

Andras has described his intention to ‘give colour back to Iveton’, whom he admires as ‘a militant, that is, a comrade, a man who works with others and only understands himself in the plural’. Plural, in the sense of being a participant in collective struggle, wary of the egoism of the ‘I’ (as is Andras in his writing), but also in terms of personal identity: Iveton identified as Algerian, was a pro-independence militant who was a member of both the FLN and the Algerian Communist Party (PCA) yet maintained a seemingly contradictory love for – and trust in – France up until his execution. As Andras puts it, he is ‘a rock in the narrative machinery’. 

Critics have reached to Camus’s L’etranger (1942) as a point of comparison, but this appears to be merely the result of canonical familiarity. There is little similarity between Camus’s resigned Meursault and the committed Iveton, while Camus’s cool neutrality (what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree-zero’) couldn’t be further from Andras’s charged, richly poetic style. Camus himself has also been compared with Iveton, on account of their respective relationships to pied-noir identity, yet Camus famously opposed the idea of Algerian Independence (though some believe that he tried to intervene to halt Iveton’s execution). A more apt comparison would be with Henri Alleg’s The Question (1958), banned by the French state for exposing the torture of prisoners in Algeria. Alleg, editor of the PCA-affiliated Alger Républicain, was arrested in 1957 for ‘demoralizing’ the French army with his publication. He was subjected to torture of the kind inflicted on Iveton (electric charges, waterboarding, experimental truth serums). Unlike Iveton, however, Alleg survived to publish his account before being forced into hiding. His book – like Andras’s – lays bare the brutality of the French state during the Algerian War.

Since De nos frères, Andras has published four more books, all of which have yet to be translated into English. S’il ne restait qu’un chien (If Only a Dog Remained), a 50-page free verse poem published in 2017, draws on five centuries of the history of the port of Le Havre, where Andras lives (notably its role in the transatlantic slave trade). It is told from the perspective of the port itself and is read aloud by the rapper D’ de Kabal on an accompanying recording. This was followed in 2018 by Kanaky: Sur les traces d’Alphonse Dianou (Kanaky: in the Footsteps of Alphonse Dianou), a second radical character study, this time of a New Caledonian independence leader killed by the French. In 1988 the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front took two dozen police hostages, demanding independence for New Caledonia ­ – a South Pacific island which remains to this day one of France’s ‘overseas departments’ – in exchange for their release. Dianou was shot in the leg during a standoff with the military and died soon after, though the exact circumstances remain contested. Vilified by the French government and press, Andras’s aims to correct this – travelling to New Caledonia to interview Dianou’s family, friends and comrades who retell his story ‘from many voices’.

The book takes the form of a travelogue, woven around a narrative retelling of the hostage situation and its catastrophic unravelling. Though different in approach, Kanaky reads as a continuation of the historical project begun with De nos frères. The careers of key military figures handling the hostage situation are traced back to the Algerian War, and Mitterrand, now President, returns as a target of critique, this time for his brutal handling of the situation (a timely flex of muscle on the eve of elections). The message is clear: despite official decolonization, or the shift from ‘colony’ to ‘overseas territory’, structures of imperialism do not disappear. They merely change form. 

In 2021, Andras published a pair of short books, Au loin le ciel du sud (The Distant Southern Sky) and Ainsi nous leur faisons la guerre (And So We Wage War on Them). The former tracks the shadows of a young, still-unknown Hô Chi Minh through leftist circles in early 1920’s Paris. Drawing on personal archives, police reports, and biographies, Andras, or rather, ‘you’ – the first-person is abandoned here – retrace Minh’s steps through a contemporary Paris animated by a new wave of struggle in the form of the Gilets Jaunes. The latter book is a triptych, composed of three historical scenes focusing on animal rights: the anti-vivisectionist ‘Brown Dog Affair’ led by Swedish Feminists in turn-of-the-century London; a 1985 raid on a testing lab at UC Riverside by the Animal Liberation Front; and the ill-fated flight of a slaughterhouse-bound cow through rural France in 2014. As with De nos frères and Kanaky, these works excavate minor figures, neglected events and hidden sites across space and time, gathering them into constellations of collective struggle. A new book on the French Revolution, Camille Desmoulins’s journal Le Vieux Cordelier, and the War in the Vendée is scheduled for publication next month.

In addition to his literary work, Andras writes regular journalism for the communist-affiliated press, with articles in L’Humanité including political commentary – on the Gilet Jaunes, Macronism, Israel-Palestine, to name a few – as well as a series of portraits of militant poets. For Regards, he has co-written several pieces with the sociologist Kaoutar Harchi, including an obituary of Zineb Redouane, an elderly Algerian woman killed by a tear gas canister thrown into her window by police during a Gilets Jaunes demonstration. Longer articles have appeared on the radical leftist site Lundimatin, notably an account of his time spent with the Zapatistas in Chiapas and a profile of the anti-speciesist group 269 Animal Liberation. Despite his reputation for secrecy, Andras has also given several interviews to leftist publications which offer insights into his influences (Césaire and Sartre are only the beginning of a much longer list which includes Bensaïd, Serge, Luxemburg…), politics and methods, and which allow one to approach his work through his own words.

Andras’s project might be broadly described as a form of radical poetic historiography. ‘I no doubt have a failed historian deep down in me’, he reports. Each book engages with embedded historical structures through patterns of repetition, erasure and what he calls history’s ‘esprit d’escalier’ – that is, its belated logic. Yet these are not reified into impassable monuments. They are approached by way of the countercurrent – the ultimately thwarted actions of the individual militant: Iveton, Dianou, Nguyên Ai Quôc, members of the Animal Liberation Front. ‘Great figures’ and cults of personality are distrusted. Andras is instead drawn to outsiders and underdogs (his interest, for instance, in the young Nguyên Ai Quôc rather than the ‘figure’ Hô Chi Minh). Historical failures are not bemoaned but embraced for their capacity to illuminate the broader mechanisms of the systems they confront. ‘Losing’, Andras suggests, ‘becomes an escape ladder. A way to reclaim one’s dignity when “victory” is the great standard of order.’

Structure and individual praxis are played against one another in his work to reveal forgotten lineages, historical constellations, unlikely proximities. As Andras puts it, ‘to speak of Dianou is also to speak of Balade in 1852’ (when the French first took present-day New Caledonia); ‘to speak of Fernand Iveton is also to speak of General Bourmont in 1830’ (when the French first laid siege on Algiers). In Kanaky, we are reminded of Louise Michel, deported with other Communards to New Caledonia, devoting herself to the cause of Kanak independence. In Ainsi nous leur faisons la guerre, feminist and animal liberation struggles over nearly a century and on both sides of the Atlantic are brought into alignment. In Au loin le ciel du sud,a walk through Paris activates strata of the city’s radical historical memory. 

Given the political and historical character of Andras’s works, one might ask why he has chosen literature – and with such a formally challenging style – as his primary medium. For one thing, a book like De nos frères little resembles the historical novel championed by Lukàcs. Rather than embracing the ‘mass experience of history itself’, it reaches outwards from the trajectory of a historical individual – but again, no great men here – to compose a social ecology and an embedded fragment of history. Andras’s books read like incisions, cutting against the grain of received wisdom. 

In interviews he has emphasised literature’s affective force and poetic language’s capacity to stimulate ambiguity. Literature provides access to ‘trembling, the je-ne-sais-pas, odour, the light which passes through and the glitch in the concept’; the novel ‘allows the expression of tensions, of friction and indecisions’. That is, something about poetic form – and this is apparent in the twists and folds of Andras’s syntax – resists categorical closure and insists upon remaining indecisive, in movement. We might just as well read this into Andras’s interest in reopening jettisoned cases, unearthing forgotten struggles, drawing out minor threads in grand narratives. He is clear, however, that the writer is not alone in this process, assigning them a specific place in the division of intellectual labour: 

The journalist examines, the historian elucidates, the militant elaborates, the poet seizes: it’s left to the writer to move amongst these four brothers: he has neither the reserves of the first, the distance of the second, the persuasive force of the third, nor the élan of the last. He has only his free rein and speaks directly to the skin, coming and going ­– even if this means limping – between gossip and certainty, belly cries and verdicts, with tearful eyes and the shade of trees.

Read on: NLR Editors ‘The Trial’, NLR I/6.