THE ALGERIAN war of independence from 1954 to 1962 was one of the bloodiest post-1945 liberation struggles.
Characterised by civilian massacres and the widespread use of torture, it led to the death and displacement of two million people.
It was also the first major conflict since the Spanish civil war to mobilise a generation of writers and artists to protest against the conduct of the war, most notably in Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers.
In 1960, many of France’s leading writers and intellectuals — including Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Andre Breton, Pierre Boulez, Francois Truffaut and Marguerite Duras — signed Le Manifeste des 121, calling on the French government to renounce the use of torture in Algeria.
As a result, many writers found themselves on the frontline.
The Algerian writer Mouloud Feraoun was assassinated by the fascist paramilitary organisation OAS in 1962. It also tried, unsuccessfully, to kill Madeleine Riffaud, who reported on the war for the communist newspaper L’Humanite.
There were two attempts on Sartre’s life.
Edited by Francis Combes and translated by Alan Dent, Poets and the Algerian War (Smokestack, £7.99) features some of the French poets who opposed the war, including Louis Aragon, Jacques Gaucheron, Riffaud, Henri Deluy and Guillevic, as well as Algerian poets like Jean Senac, Kateb Yacine, Bachir Hadj Ali, Noureddine Aba and Mohamed Saleh Baouiya.
The Algerian poet Messaour Boulanouar, imprisoned during the conflict, wrote:
“I write so that life can be respected by all... I give my light to those suffocated by shadow/ Those who will triumph over shame and vermin/I write for the man in pain the blind man/The man closed in by sadness/The man hidden from the day’s splendour... So we might respect/The tree which rises/The corn which grows/The grass in the desert/ The hope of men.”
Many of these poets, such as Riffaud, tried to draw attention to the use of torture by the French authorities:
“They kill them with fire, water, electricity/Those who lived far from springs/Dreaming of water all their life/Those who shivered, without coal/In Mouloud’s frozen sun./Those who lay awake in the dark/Buried in a gloomy slum.”
And this is Gabriel Cousin:
“In a police station near the autumnal/park, electrodes are placed on a/man whose body fills with cries and dizziness./He is Algerian./To muffle his cries the policemen/turn on the radio which brings the voice/of Monsieur André Malraux:/‘I assert that torture has stopped in Algeria.’”
The book also includes a remarkable series of poems first published in the magazine Action Poetique in memory of Maurice Audin, a young university lecturer and member of the Algerian Communist Party who was tortured and murdered by the French authorities. Jo Guglielmi wrote:
“Someone is dead/We know in which town which street in which house/A cell remains empty/We know very well who did the killing.”
And this is part of a long poem by Jean Perret: “Maurice Audin, I write your name/I carry your name in my anger/On my heart and my reason/My wife carries your name/My children carry your name/Lenin bears your name.”
Poets and the Algerian War is an important historical document.
But it is also a reminder of the possibilities and of the responsibilities of poetry in our own times.