Bookforum | Oct/Nov 2005

A colonial education was always an ambiguous gift. In Algeria it was also largely a gift withheld. When the war of independence began in 1954, 86 percent of Algerian men and 95 percent of women were illiterate. The passionate ambivalence of the educated happy few is a leitmotif in Algerian novels going back two generations. Kateb Yacine's Le Polygone étoilé (1966) features an Arabic scholar who decides to thrust his small son "into the maw of the wolf"—the French grade school. Assia Djebar's Fantasia, an Algerian Cavalcade (1985) alternates fond school-day memories with nineteenth-century French military bulletins of brutal conquest. Even the granddaddy of contemporary Algerian novelists, Mouloud Feraoun, the little shepherd boy rescued from virtual starvation by a solid French education, tucks bitter doubts between the lines.

First published in 1950 at the author's expense, The Poor Man's Son won the City of Algiers Book Prize and garnered high praise from Albert Camus—the two men corresponded for years—as well as the attention of the prestigious Éditions du Seuil, which brought out a truncated version of the brief tale in 1954. That version became a French-language classic. Lucy McNair's thoughtful and long overdue English translation restores the cuts, and James Le Sueur's introduction provides historical context.

Feraoun, as the book's subtitle indicates, was a Kabyle, or in today's parlance, Imazighen, an ethnic group that constitutes some 30 percent of present-day Algeria. Based in the eastern part of the country, the Imazighen, the original inhabitants of North Africa, converted to Islam in the Arab invasions of the seventh century. Their language is Tamazight; Feraoun neither spoke nor wrote Arabic. In his childhood, the fiercely independent Kabyles were still paying the price for a failed rebellion against French rule in 1871, when they were stripped of a million acres of ancestral lands. "Greece in Rags" is how Camus described Kabylia, in a famous series of articles that ran in the then brash new daily Alger Républicain, in 1939. Camus was shocked to find "one of the world's proudest and most human groups" subsisting on a Mediterranean diet of barley, figs, weeds, and spring water. His j'accuse probably spurred Feraoun to tell the Kabyles' story from an insider's perspective.

By dint of hard work and brains and great frugality, Feraoun managed to win one of the few places reserved for Muslim students at the École Normale, the prestigious teachers college of Algiers, in 1932. He read Voltaire, Michelet, and Anatole France. For the first time in his life he had enough to eat. For the first time he met sympathetic Europeans—his idealistic teachers—who treated him like an equal. After graduation, Feraoun went home to the backcountry villages of Kabylia and taught the basics, fifty to a class, sometimes twice as many, in two shifts. Empathy came easy: "When I try to imagine myself among the kids, my pupils, I am always there with the most sickly, the least troublesome, the ones who dread working, hate games, and take a malicious pleasure in constantly learning something."

The Poor Man's Son is about poverty, of course, but also family, community, shame, honor, feuds, jealousy, grief, and abiding love. The precocious hero, Fouroulou Menrad (a playful anagram of the author's name), tries to make sense of his peasant father's struggle to survive. Hunger is a constant. One day the boy shows up at his father's worksite just at lunchtime, hoping to share the sumptuous meal the employer provides. Potato soup! His father insists he's not hungry and goes home to rest. Fouroulou, deeply ashamed, devours his father's share. Then he goes home to find his father making do with a handful of "black couscous." "That day he returned to work on a half-empty stomach, but he had engraved on his son's heart, once and for all, the full extent of his love."

The hero's illiterate father is described as having "a colorful way of mocking people and things without being cruel. In truth, he was a deadpan comic as well as a philosopher and a poet. Many of his dry remarks are still repeated in the village." Feraoun could be describing his own gifts. Textbook clarity (cheerful declarative sentences, few adjectives) is often sabotaged by sly wit. A sad little disquisition on racism reads like a primer gone haywire. It opens wryly, "Menrad is a Kabyle. It's not his fault."

The last third of the book, discarded by a Paris editor fifty years ago and restored here, is a revelation. In the chapter titled "War" (dated 1944), Feraoun drops his schoolroom composure and resigned politesse, and rages against managed famine under the Vichy regime. Anguished, compassionate, clued into the details of a dozen sordid transactions, he's already recognizable here as the same lucid noncombatant who would chronicle yet another conflict, in Journal, 1955–1962: Reflections on the French-Algerian War (2000). Feraoun bore witness to the Kabyles' suffering at the hands of both French and rebel troops. He wrote in school notebooks he hid among his students' papers or in a friend's garden; he finally hand-delivered them to his Paris publisher a few months before his death.

Three days before the cease-fire in March 1962, Feraoun was in Algiers working with European colleagues who shared his unshaken faith in the bootstrapping power of education. A mid-morning meeting to discuss vocational training for homeless boys was halted by Christian terrorists from the ultraright Organisation armée secrète. Feraoun and five colleagues were ordered into the courtyard and machine gunned at close range. The killers, as historian Alistair Horne chillingly reports in A Savage War of Peace, had orders from their leader, General Salan, to "single out the best Muslim elements in the liberal professions." Algeria has yet to recover from such loss.

Suzanne Ruta is an author, translator, and human-rights activist.