Book Review: The question of torture, then and now

1653.jpgHenri Alleg’s book “The Question” is a searing, firsthand account of the torture that the author experienced during the Battle of Algiers. Although it was first published in 1958, it is a book that should still be read today: first, because it is a classic of anti-colonialist literature; and second, because — as the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the current debates in the U.S. about the use of torture make clear — “the question” of torture is, unfortunately, still with us.

Alleg, a French Communist, was the editor of the pro-Algerian-independence newspaper Alger Républicain. In 1955, the French colonial government banned the newspaper. In 1957, Alleg was arrested. He was initially imprisoned for one month in El Biar, Algeria, where he was subjected to the extreme torture described in the book.

Alleg was then transferred to a detention camp in Lodi, Algeria, where he began writing his book. It was subsequently smuggled out of prison to France, where it was published in 1958. Within two weeks, “The Question” sold over 60,000 copies — and then the French government banned it. It was the first book to be banned in France since the 18th century.

Jean-Paul Sartre, one of France’s outstanding public intellectuals, responded by writing a passionate essay on Alleg’s book for his journal Les Temps Modernes. Sartre’s essay and Alleg’s book were then published together and translated into over nine languages. In the U.S., George Braziller published the book in 1958, but it has long been out of print.

While his book was igniting the conscience of France and the world, Alleg remained in prison. Finally, after three years in prison, because of his health he was transferred to a hospital in Rennes, France, from which he made a dramatic escape in 1961 with the aid of the local Communist Party club. He voluntarily returned to the prison a year later, and all charges against him were dropped.

After the liberation of Algeria in 1962, Alleg returned there to resume the editorship of the Alger Républicain. Today, at age 85, he lives in France. Over the past four decades he has written many more books and articles.

“The Question” has now been reissued in a new edition by the University of Nebraska Press. The new edition includes a forward by Ellen Ray, co-author with Michael Ratner of the book “Guantanamo: What the World Should Know”; an introduction by James D. Le Sueur, an associate professor of history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and a new afterward by Henri Alleg himself.

Ray notes the connections between Alleg’s book and today’s news. She writes: “Condemned by international law and the democratic, ‘civilized’ West, torture is increasingly part of the arsenal of our [sic] military services. In fact, official Pentagon reports … suggest that kidnappings, unlawful interrogations, and sometimes summary executions of prisoners are becoming routine practices by our security service … in George W. Bush’s endless ‘war against terrorism.’”

Le Sueur’s introduction provides historical background to the text and biographical information about Alleg and also highlights the contemporary relevance of the book. Unfortunately, he does not provide much information about the pre-liberation role of the Alger Républicain. He devotes more space to the post-liberation conflicts between Alleg and the newspaper and the government of Houari Boumedienne after the coup that overthrew the first revolutionary government of Ben Bella.

The immediate relevance of Alleg’s book was dramatically highlighted after the publication of this new edition. Last November, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a request for the German federal prosecutor to open an investigation that will look into the responsibility of high-ranking U.S. officials for authorizing war crimes. Alleg’s harrowing description of waterboarding, the practice of repeatedly bringing a prisoner to the point of drowning, was included in the brief that was filed against Donald Rumsfeld and others.

In his afterward, Alleg writes that we have “every reason to believe that [torture] will continue well into the future.” The elites, he says, “respond to the grave problems that assail our world — social injustice, frustration, misery, sickness and hunger — by a refusal to listen, to understand. Instead, they give us war, violence and torture.”

Alleg’s book is a call to all of us to prevent that prophecy from becoming true. It is a call to all of us to do everything we can to prevent the horrors of torture from continuing “well into the future.”

The Question
By Henri Alleg
University of Nebraska Press, 2006
Softcover, 102 pp., $16.95