On February 11, 1957, Fernand Iveton was guillotined in Algiers, in the yard of Barberousse Prison. A military court had convicted him of “attempting to destroy, with an explosive substance, a building that is inhabited or used for habitation.” Iveton had gone to great lengths to ensure no one would be hurt in the blast and, in any event, the bomb didn’t go off. But he was a pied-noir, a Frenchman born in Algeria, and it was politically expedient to make an example of a European who had chosen the side of the Arabs.
Iveton became a cause célèbre, called a “killer” by France-Soir despite the lack of deaths. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about him in Les Temps modernes. And in 2015, his story was revived with the publication of Joseph Andras’s debut novel De nos frères blessés, which will be released in English next month by Verso Books as Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, translated by Simon Leser.
On the day I received my copy of Andras’s book, an armed right-wing mob stormed the Capitol building, led by conspiracy theorists and white supremacists. Reading Andras’s novel, it’s hard not to see the same violent order underlying it all. Today, when the long historic arc of violence—from the cheapening of Black life to the clampdowns that follow the spectacle of a burning Wendy’s—is as clear as it has been in decades, Iveton’s story is worth returning to. Andras’s version of the man is an object lesson in committing to a better future. All the more so because he was killed for it.
Born in 1926, Iveton lived a life defined by the distinctly working-class cultural exchange of inter-war Europe. His mother was Spanish, but she died when he was two, so his French father raised him in a village outside of Algiers, in “an Arab Muslim neighborhood where few Europeans lived,” Andras writes. It was communal and egalitarian in the way poverty can sometimes be, a place where “everyone lived together, the Arab market, the Moorish bath, Europeans and Jews.”
Iveton was never able to visit France until he sought treatment for tuberculosis as an adult. There he met a waitress named Hélène, whom he went on to marry. She had her own international upbringing. Born in Poland, her family emigrated to France for agricultural work. After her father returned to his homeland for a brief visit, “the Polish People’s Republic never allowed him to get a return ticket.” After they married, Hélène followed Iveton back to Algeria.
It’d be understandable if this personal history of conflicting communities and national borders left Iveton culturally adrift. “They say Algeria’s in France,” he says in an early meeting with Hélène, “but still it’s not the same.” But Andras imagines him as anything but, thanks to another identity that helps make sense of all the rest: his life as a communist.
Iveton’s father was an Algerian Communist Party (PCA) member who was fired for going on strike during the Vichy Regime. When Iveton left school for a factory job to supplement the family income, he joined the party, too. But it was with the oppression of his Arab neighbors in mind. “Yes, I am a communist militant,” he says in Andras’s version of the trial. “I took the decision to become one because I think of myself as Algerian, and I am not indifferent to the struggle of the Algerian people.” The connection wasn’t so obvious to the party, unfortunately. When the Algerian independence movement first took shape behind the Front de libération nationale (FLN), the PCA balked. It “caused mayhem within the Party,” the Iveton of the novel says to his cellmates. “Was it a genuine revolution or the doing of reckless agitators whose excessive radicality played right into the hands of the colonial authorities?” Eventually, the two organizations struck a deal, allowing PCA members to join an armed wing, the Combattants de la Libération, in support of the FLN. Iveton didn’t hesitate.
Andras structures Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us around this dialectic of community and commitment. Iveton’s fate is known from the start, so it’s the fracturing and mending of communal ties that provides the narrative tension. It’s a question of where Iveton fits in French history. The Communist Party refuses to provide him with a lawyer because he’s too much like 19th-century anarchist Auguste Vaillant, and Iveton’s stepson hopes the memory of pied-noir army hero Louis Franchet d’Espèrey will sway the government from its bloodlust. Iveton himself isn’t sure: he worries his “shoulders are not broad enough to take on the mantle of the prefect of Eure-et-Loir, Jean Moulin,” the French Resistance hero. He doesn’t think, at the time, of Hélène, who was involved in the Resistance herself.
Chapters alternate between the present tense of Iveton’s crime and its aftermath and the past tense of his courtship with Hélène. And the present tense shifts viewpoints, switching between Iveton, Hélène, and occasional others. In the book’s most suspenseful moments—as when Iveton’s bomb is discovered—they can change mid-sentence. Narration and dialogue, internal thought and external action blend into a multivalent mass, effectively dramatizing the tensions spurring Iveton to action. The result is a pithy, 130-page story that claimed the prestigious Prix Goncourt prize for a first novel. In Leser’s translation, Andras’s prose is like the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, by turns raw and atmospheric, philosophical and hard-boiled.
It also invites comparison to another acclaimed French-Algerian novel: Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Whereas Andras writes about community and purpose, Camus does the opposite. Meursault, the titular stranger, is a man defined by detachment. He floats passively through life, killing a man on a beach almost without thinking, and he is convicted of murder as much for his demeanor as for his actions.
The contrast is ironic, given that Andras is a private writer from Normandy—he told L’Humanité that he visited Algeria for family reasons, but little else about his life is publicly known—while Camus was a pied-noir himself. Only thirteen years older than Iveton, Camus also grew up in a working-class Algiers neighborhood, raised by his illiterate mother and grandmother after his father died when he was young.
Camus’s writing is filled with the same love of Algeria that Andras voices through Iveton, yet Camus never found the same kind of enduring, organized political community that gave Iveton direction. The writer joined the Communist Party as a young man, but was quickly expelled—largely because of his support for the nascent Algerian nationalist movement, which hadn’t yet gained Communist support.
Camus’s early career was marked by those Algerian commitments. He first made a name for himself as a reporter, covering the oppression of Arabs for the leftist paper Alger républicain. (Andras refers to the series in Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, in the voice of a priest who meets with Iveton—another similarity with The Stranger.) But Camus lost his anti-colonial reputation when the Algerian War began.
Colonization had always been violent—Andras points out that “the day France celebrated victory over the Germans,” pied-noirs and colonial authorities massacred thousands of Arabs in the towns of Sétif and Guelma—but as the independence movement grew, it reached new proportions. The FLN responded with bombs in public markets and trains. Their struggle against a rival nationalist organization, Mouvement national algérien, turned into the so-called Café Wars. Thousands more died. The French army responded with their own terrors: napalm, paramilitary militias, and the brutal torture of arrested activists, including Iveton. Civilians were regularly caught in the crossfire, when not targeted outright.
In horror, torn between his French heritage and his Algerian upbringing, Camus refused to speak publicly about the war until a publicity tour he undertook after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 1957, nine months after Iveton was executed. “I have kept quiet for a year and eight months,” Camus said. “I have always condemned terrorism, and I must condemn terrorism that works blindly in the streets of Algiers and one day might strike at my mother and my family. I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice.”
The last line became infamous. In his biography of Camus, Oliver Todd claims the writer’s actual words differed slightly, specifying that any justice in which an illiterate mother may be bombed at a café isn’t actually justice. It was a call for a democratic Algeria freed from the colonial oppression—and one that guaranteed the rights of all born there. It satisfied no one. Camus’s reputation among the French left plummeted and hadn’t recovered by the time he was killed in a car crash a little over two years later.
It’s even more ironic, then, that Iveton’s position wasn’t so different. In Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us, Iveton “aspires to just one thing: that the Algeria of tomorrow may end up, voluntarily or otherwise, recognizing all parts of its children, wherever they’re from, him or his parents and grandparents, doesn’t matter, Arabs, Berbers, Jews, Italians, Spaniards, Maltese, French, Germans…”
The difference is that Iveton didn’t stay silent. Guided by his communist commitments, he feels compelled to act on behalf of “his people,” as Andras has him say. “I had to join in with its action.” But that doesn’t mean he’s willing to bomb illiterate mothers, either. “Never, I repeat, never would I have wished to take part in an action which would have led to someone’s death, even if I had been forced to,” Iveton says in his trial. Instead, he made an infamous statement of his own: the bomb he hid in an out-of-the-way shack at his factory, timed to blow after hours. He hoped to draw attention to the struggle for independence and prove “that not all European Algerians are anti-Arab.” An act of sabotage, but not terrorism.
The French authorities saw him as a killer anyway. In the novel, as in life, he’s arrested, tortured, and condemned to death by a military tribunal. “Yes, in legal terms, your case is easy to defend,” his lawyer (eventually provided by his union) tells him, “but it’s come at the wrong time.” With a war raging in public streets, Iveton’s call for solidarity couldn’t be heard. “The government commissioner declares that whatever Fernand’s intentions—to kill or not to kill innocent people—the crime remains the same,” Andras narrates.
It was just that fact that drove Camus to silence. Iveton was “condemned as much because of the general climate as because of what he did,” Camus wrote in “Reflections on the Guillotine.” He continues:
“In the present state of mind in Algeria, there was a desire at one and the same time to prove to the Arab opinion that the guillotine was designed for Frenchman too and to satisfy the French opinion wrought up by the crimes of terrorism. At the same moment, however, the Minister who approved the execution was accepting Communist votes in his electoral district. If the circumstances had been different, the accused would have got off easy and his only risk, once he had become a Deputy of the party, would be finding himself having a drink at the same bar as the Minister someday.”
Camus tried to marshal his influence behind the scenes, instead. Andras notes that the writer pleaded with the French government to spare Iveton’s life. That failed, too.
In the end, Camus was more right than he knew. The minister who sought execution was none other than François Mitterrand, the man who would take the French presidency a quarter-century later on the back of a socialist movement. He brought in Communist ministers and promised sweeping reforms. He abolished the death penalty. But his crimes in Algeria lingered. “In the historiography of François Mitterrand and the Algerian War, Iveton remains a cursed name,” Benjamin Stora and François Malye wrote in François Mitterrand et la guerre d’Algérie—a quote Andras uses as an epigraph to his afterward.
When the general climate changed again—this time thanks to the complications of a new European project—Mitterrand abandoned the rest of his reform plan. Within a year of taking office, he implemented austerity. “His reversal and subsequent move to the Right precipitated the long-term process of privatization and neoliberal restructuring in French capitalism,” Jonah Birch wrote in Jacobin; “simultaneously, it resulted in the transformation of the Socialist Party into an agent of the market.” Mitterrand’s journey from protector of empire to left-wing standard bearer and back again is a kind of proof for what Camus and Andras both know: the vicissitudes of history will have their say.
For both, the times can simply become too much. “Our alphabet is too decorous,” the novel’s Iveton thinks while being tortured after his arrest. “Horror can’t but give up before its twenty-six little characters.” Maybe Camus thought something similar when he chose neutrality. But doing so also risks refusing to recognize the place we’re in. Iveton complains that, even when the bombs start to explode, the public won’t call the events what they are: “But still no war, no, not that. Power minds its language—its fatigues tailored from satin, its butchery smothered by propriety.”
There are no bombs in today’s US cafés—but they have started appearing at political headquarters. The body count keeps rising: the insurrection at the Capitol is just the last in a long line stretching to a Kenosha protest, a Pittsburgh synagogue, and a church in Charleston, to say nothing of the 980 people killed by police in the past year. We tend to erase them with truisms about who we are, whatever evidence we see to the contrary.
In these times when nonviolent protest in favor of racial equality and paramilitary goons hunting for democratically elected congresswomen are treated as two sides of the same threat to public order, you can begin to see why Iveton thought something louder than words was necessary, even if he shared Camus’s abhorrence of civilian casualties. Sometimes a point is so obvious words won’t do. But when the conditions are right, even something as blunt as a bomb can be overcome with something as fine as a guillotine blade. Iveton’s claim to community fell on deaf ears.
One thing remained, though: the sacrifice of solidarity. “The life of a man, my life, matters little,” Iveton says as he is taken into the yard of Barberousse Prison at the end of Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us. “What matters is Algeria, its future. And tomorrow Algeria will be free. I am convinced that the friendship between the French and the Algerians will be mended.”
That’s a history worth remembering. This time, we might even be able to hear it. ♦
Matt Hartman is a writer from Durham, North Carolina.