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The Story of a Suppressed Massacre

William Gardner Smith's republished 1963 novel 'The Stone Face' tells the story of a black artist who hopes to escape American racism in Paris – only to encounter the French government's violent suppression of the struggle for Algerian independence.

Graffiti reading 'Ici on noie les Algériens' ('Algerians are drowned here') on the Pont Saint-Michel in 1961. (Creative Commons)

This October marked the sixty-year anniversary of the 1961 Paris massacre, in which French police attacked a rally in support of Algerian independence. Some thirty thousand demonstrators had gathered to protest against a curfew imposed on the city’s Algerian population; the Paris police chief and sometime Nazi collaborator, Maurice Papon, ordered the repression as payback for a bombing campaign by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) that had claimed the lives of ten policemen.

Many thousands of civilians were detained, and dozens were beaten to death or thrown into the river Seine and drowned. A police cover-up duly ensued, and the matter was never properly investigated. As a result, the death toll is disputed to this day: estimates vary from forty to three hundred. This was just a few months before Algeria won its independence from France, ending a seven-year war of liberation.

The atrocity was hushed up in the French press at the time, and wasn’t acknowledged by the French state until 1998. Such was the extent of the blackout that it was scarcely mentioned in French literature for over two decades until the crime writer Didier Daeninckx depicted it in his 1984 novel Meurtres pour mémoire (Murder in Memoriam).

However, a novel published in the United States just two years after the massacre featured a detailed fictionalised account of the events of that day. The Stone Face was the fourth and last novel by African American author and reporter William Gardner Smith (1927-1974), who had emigrated to Paris from his native Philadelphia in 1951 and was in the city at the time of the turmoil. Recently republished by NYRB Classics, it recounts a year in the life of Simeon Brown, a black American journalist living in the bohemian exile milieu of Paris’s Latin Quarter.

Aged ‘just under thirty’, Simeon left the US to escape the daily humiliations of American racism; he sports an eye-patch after having been partially blinded in a racist attack in Philadelphia. Simeon revels in the relative freedom of Paris, where he is able to go about his life without fear of harassment or violence, but his illusions about French society are quickly shattered when he befriends two Arab men, Hossein and Ahmed, and witnesses their mistreatment at the hands of the French police. This triggers ‘a return of buried hatreds; forgotten walls had shot up again between him and the world.’

The novel traces a snapshot of the fraught racial and colonial politics of early-sixties France through its protagonist’s encounters with people of various political hues. These include a French student called Raoul, who insists that France has no concept of racism: ‘The French don’t like the Arabs, but it’s not racism. The Arabs don’t like us either. We’re different.’ Simeon retorts: ‘It’s a difference with you on top and them on the bottom.’

Simeon’s status as a US citizen elevates his status in the social pecking order—an Algerian man quips: ‘How does does it feel to be the white man for a change?’—but his default sympathy is with the embattled minority group. Travelling by bus through a deprived district of northern Paris with a large Arab population, Simeon is reminded of Harlem:

‘The men he saw… had whiter skins and less frizzy hair, but they were in other ways like the Negroes in the United States. They adopted the same poses: ‘stashing’ on corners, ready for and scared of the ever-possible ‘trouble’; eyes sullen and distrusting, dressed in pegged pants, flashy shirts and narrow pointed shoes.’

Simeon maintains he had no choice but to emigrate because, were he to stay, he was certain he would eventually be provoked into killing someone. His Polish girlfriend, Maria, a Jewish Holocaust survivor who was sexually abused by a German officer in a concentration camp, has a rosy view of the United States and struggles—despite her own background—to get her head around his experience. He explains:

‘in the ordinary day, nothing striking happens, people don’t even notice you in the street. But a hundred tiny things happen—micro-particles, nobody can see them but us. And there’s always the danger that something bigger will happen. The beast in the Jungle, you’re always tense, waiting for it to spring. It’s terrible, yes. And we want to breathe air, we don’t want to think about this race business twenty-four hours a day… But you have to keep thinking about it; they force you to think about it all the time.’

Smith’s portrayal of the African American ex-pat milieu is loosely based on a group of writers and artists—among them James Baldwin, Chester Himes, and Richard Wright—with whom he associated in the 1950s while working as a journalist for AFP. Some members of this clique exhibit varying degrees of cynicism and weariness. At the extreme end is a novelist called Benson, who ‘lived a bitter and hermetic life’, wallowing in the notion that white Americans had ‘made us sick’: ‘Ain’t no people can live under that pressure, that humiliation, without becoming sick. Without being twisted, distorted.’

Simeon feels this is a defeatist copout, and reminds Benson that those waging the civil rights struggle back home could hardly be described as sick—on the contrary, they were carrying the fight. A character called Babe, who is believed to be based on the political cartoonist Ollie Herrington (1912-1995), espouses an extreme identitarian politics that puts him firmly at odds with the ethos of the civil rights movement. Babe is adamant he has no desire to return to the US and join in struggle:

‘Depends what the fight is for. I’ma tellin’ you, if we was like the Algerians, and was fighting to free our country and drive the white folks out—just like in a colony—well, then, I wouldn’t be here. I’d be in that fight. But fight for what? For integration? Man, I don’t want to be integrated… Look at them screaming white hyenas in that picture in the papers today. You want to integrate with that? They were my enemies, there was a fight on, a long war been going on since they took the first slave there, but what kinda war was that when your aim was to be integrated into the enemy!… Naw, man.’

Babe, we are told, ‘was a race man. He enjoyed nothing better than sitting in his comfortable apartment chatting and joking with members of the Negro colony in Paris.’ The strong hint of ironic disparagement here—in labelling him a ‘race man’, as one might call someone ‘a company man’, and in the arch reference to ‘the Negro colony’—betrays a gnawing anxiety about the political quietude of exile life, and its tendency towards insularity and complacency. For his part, Simeon appears unconvinced by the idea that his primary loyalty should lie with some putative race-based diaspora. As he watches students from various African countries discussing the politics of Congo and Algeria in a Paris café, he feels ‘isolated and futile’:

‘The future of these students lay clear before them. They were studying administration, engineering, mathematics. The would afterward go home to their respective countries, where they were desperately needed, and take up posts which were read for them. They would aid their peoples. Their individual destinies and the destinies of their countries were one.’

These young men belonged, first and foremost, to nations, not races. In a similar vein, Simeon’s appreciation of the comparatively permissive sexual politics of France is informed by an understanding that class, not race, was the real determinant: the black men he sees walking arm-in-arm with white Frenchwomen on the left bank of the Seine ‘were not labourers and were rarely poor. They were students, artists, professional people. They were ‘respectable’.’

Simeon’s willingness to get to get acquainted with the Parisian Arabs and their struggle sits in pointed contrast to the inwardness of some of his fellow exiles. During one of his visits to Hossein and Ahmed’s rooming house, he witnesses a police raid in which several men are taken away to be beaten and tortured to extract information about possible FLN links. Later, while dining with a group of Arab friends, he learns that two of Ahmed’s female friends were subjected to horrific sexual torture at the hands of French policemen. Both women temporarily vacate the room while Ahmed recounts what happened to them in harrowing detail. As with the portrayal of the Paris massacre, this would have been one of the earliest accounts of such abuses in literature.

At the outset of the novel, Simeon, an amateur painter, is trying unsuccessfully to recreate on canvas the soulless and insentient expression on the countenance of his assailant in Philadelphia—the ‘stone face’ of the book’s title. Perusing a copy of the Paris Herald Tribune, he sees the expression again in a photograph of white people haranguing a group of black schoolchildren on their way to a newly desegregated school. His participation in the October protest—during which he punches a policeman who is attacking a mother and baby—forms the climax of the novel, the culmination of his political awakening, as his concept of ‘the stone face’ pans out from the specificity of US racism to the broad sweep of human hatred and thuggery:

‘the face of the torturer at Buchenwald and Dachau, the face of the hysterical mob at Little Rock, the face of the Afrikaner bigit and the Portuguese butcher in Angola, and, yes, the black faces of Lumumba’s murderers—they were all the same face. Wherever this face was found, it was his enemy; and whoever feared, or suffered from, or fought against this face was his brother.’

For those who prefer their fiction subtle and allusive rather than preachy, the totalising force of this epiphany might feel a bit much. This is, to an extent, that kind of book. The shortcomings that let down many a social novel are in evidence here—they will be familiar to anyone who has engaged with the recent spate of topically themed contemporary novels about Brexit, Donald Trump, and climate change: a crude transposing of political discourse onto story, such that each character represents a given tendency or point of view, and each bit of dialogue sets up a mini-essay ventriloquising the author’s views, with the narrative arc comprising nothing more or less than the gradual crystallisation of a world-view.

This didactic tendency is exemplified when one of Simeon’s Algerian pals, Hossein, delivers an antisemitic rant in front of Maria. Simeon’s reflections on US antisemitism are promptly conveyed by Smith’s third-person narrator: many African Americans were antisemitic because ‘the Jews, discriminated against in the white society, were often left with the crumbs—the real estate and stores in the Negro neighborhoods. They were therefore the most visible exploiters of the American Negroes’; in the case of Algerians in France, as Hossein explains, that economic resentment was compounded by the Palestine question. The analysis may very well be sound, but the flow of the narrative feels a little forced.

Another failing common to some such novels is an excessive recourse to heavy-handed symbolism. Here a sub-plot involving Maria’s failing eyesight—she has a degenerative condition, and may go blind unless she has an operation—seems to exist solely in order to be twinned with Simeon’s own partial blindness, in order to make a allegorical point about the gaze in politics. Corniness and political earnestness are awkward bed-follows.

Seen in the light of these shortcomings, Simeon’s struggle to render the ‘stone face’ on canvass serves as an apt metaphor for the writing of political fiction—the perennial problem of reconciling politics and aesthetics. This is directly addressed in a telling exchange between Simeon and Harold, a black musician with the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra, who rarely engages with politics and focuses his energies exclusively on his music:

‘‘That’s the only way to be, for an artist… Temporary causes and problems are the death of art.’

Simeon said, ‘There are periods when, as a man, you’re bound more to a cause than to art.’

‘Then one shouldn’t pretend to be an artist. One should go get a gun and fight. But leave art alone.’’

This in turn gives way the even bigger and more vexed ethical question of how to balance political commitment with the desire to live a happy life in the here and now. Smith’s thoughtful dissection of this dilemma prefigures the essayistic meditations in Sally Rooney’s recent bestselling novel, Beautiful World Where Are You. Maria is desperate to put her trauma behind her and reinvent herself as an actress—it ‘would mean a metamorphosis, it would wipe out the past, destroy memories’. Simeon is sceptical—‘the kind of life she desired [was] one of isolation and abdication’—but he’s willing to give it a go: ‘Simeon… made a conscious effort—with only limited success—to think less about ‘problems’. He told himself that the world was what it was, that it was not his fault, and that there was nothing he could do about it.’ ‘He wanted [Maria] to be happy… She was right: life was much simpler when you lived for yourself and let the world take care of itself.’

Despite its flaws, The Stone Face contains moments of keen insight. The following brief passage, describing Simeon’s unease during the early stages of his courtship with Maria, poignantly articulates the emasculating toll of racial subjugation:

‘He wanted to sleep with her, but could not fathom her brooding silence. His pride and all of his racial experience made him fear a rebuff if he approached her directly. Yet all that was honest in him had always made him reject any approach but a direct one.’

In such moments we glimpse the vast distance between life as it should be lived and the degraded, knock-off version afforded to the second-class citizen. The problem of how to stave off bitterness while living under such conditions is one of the novel’s central concerns, and the subject of some of its most candid and astute psychological insights. At one point, Simeon recalls a scene from his life in Philadelphia, when he was working with an exuberant young white reporter who was completely oblivious to the glares that he would receive while the two of them were walking down the street. He bitterly resented her naivety: ‘She had an infectious laugh and was likable, but Simeon was irritated that she was enjoying life so fully in the nation that made life so difficult for him.’

This, presumably, is what Benson means when he says white America ‘made us sick’. The struggle to balance two urgent but conflicting necessities—the need to be politically conscious and engaged versus the need to protect against a corrosion of the soul, the brutalisation that comes with being at war—is rendered here with great sensitivity and moral intelligence. As Ahmed puts it: ‘The way we are fighting this war is necessary—there is no escape. But one must not acquire a taste for it.’