War is For the Animals

by Nicolas Mathieu

Translated by Fabrice Robinet

 

 

1961

 

That particular fall, people killed and got killed in broad daylight. In the middle of the street. All in good faith.

The center of Oran was smeared with slogans. Three capital letters reverberated on its yellowed wall, sparking either hope or fear, depending on whether one wanted to stay or see them leave. As if war itself was an advertisement.

The bottom of the air was filled with a perpetual scent of burnt wood. Young women no longer strolled, arm in arm, alluring and wild on the ascending boulevards. Handsome, dark-haired men wearing moccasins had set aside their smiles. They now read the newspapers, wearing ornery expressions on the terraces of cafés.

In the European quarters, one slept poorly, and the heat had nothing to do with it. Under their pillows, worried fathers stashed prewar revolvers. Even grandmothers, haggard and venomous, prepared themselves to kill or die.

Oran was a monstrous wedding cake, an entanglement of pompous monuments and narrow streets where fear and hatred flowed like wadis in the spring.

At nightfall, one still lingered on the squares, in the fig trees’ shade, to play cards or drink anisette while chatting. Now, though, nobody believed in this sweet way of life anymore. Men had lost their rhythm. Their tone was low, their gestures steadier. Wearily they wiped their necks with burning hot handkerchiefs. Whiteness no longer existed. Sheets, shirts, petticoats constantly looked filthy. The sky, once like an eggshell, had turned into a steel bowl. And that summer, on the beaches, teenage girls had felt less that sickening, yet overpowering, excitement, that desire their mothers dreaded so much.

 

 

While October kept going with no clear intention to end, Pierre Duruy and Louis Scagna were driving up a populous boulevard aboard a Simca Vedette. Pierre was behind the wheel. A refreshing breeze rushed through the car’s open windows, causing their shirttails to beat in the wind. Both were wearing ties, and Scagna tinted sunglasses. They were leaving the office, on their way to perform their duty.

The day before, someone had placed explosives in the sewers of the city’s Arab neighborhoods. No one knew for sure who had done it. The Organization had many arms, each of which operated independently. Around five p.m., five people were killed in the deafening crash. The Negro village had trembled, its residents used to noise. Ahmed, twelve, worked as a shoeshine boy, and since the beginning of the “Events”[1] business was no longer booming. Unfairly, his mother called him a slacker and a good-for-nothing, which made him laugh because this couldn’t be all that serious; things would soon return to normal.

Ultimately, Ahmed would not find out what this was all about. Because the day before, around five p.m., bits of metal from a manhole cover had pierced his chest, leaving holes in it the diameter of a fist. Pierre Duruy was from Oran, like Ahmed. He was a good fellow who had his reasons, and if someone mentioned to him the young Ahmed, Pierre thought of the little Francine. Each one brandished his martyrs and justified his own crimes.

Pierre wasn’t the one who placed the explosives that cost the young shoeshine boy’s life, but he could have been and would have done so with no qualms.

 

 

–There, you know everything!

Dr. Fabregas’ enthusiasm made Pierre uneasy. Like every morning, with Scagna, they had stopped by his office around seven, before going to work. In this quiet place, with anatomical boards from the 18th century hung on the walls, an opulent silence prevailed at all times. Behind his desk, the doctor occupied a worn leather chair on the back of which his head left a permanent stain. Together, they were supposed to discuss the ongoing operations and keep each other informed about the police’s plans and the army’s maneuvers. Mainly, they were being notified of their agendas for the day.

At this early hour, the doctor, who lived just upstairs, was spry and pink like a newborn. As usual, he hadn’t skimped on cologne. Behind his back, others called him Coco. The one who smells like hen{C}[2]{C}.

Since he was a child, Fabregas dreamed of becoming a leader. After all, he had always distinguished himself from others. First prize in Latin, high school graduate at seventeen, he had studied in Paris. At school, the other kids had never taken him very seriously. But since then he had found a path for himself, married the daughter of a ship-owner. He was even a candidate in local elections. He had done some favors, scratched some backs and saved more than one hide. Now, he was a leader. That morning, he greeted them with his distinctively solemn expression. Pierre did not like it when the doctor overacted his sense of duty.

—We hold Oran, the city center at least. And in Paris, they’re starting to understand. But we have to make examples out of someone. Worse than our enemy are the apathetic and the undecided. Already, this summer, we’ve been through hell to prevent people from going on vacation. They have to understand there is no room for business as usual anymore.

Indeed, in July, as soon as the school year had ended, the Pieds-Noirs[3] had intended to distance themselves from the disaster and take up their summer routines, travelling to Spain and visiting the Metropolis[4]. So they’d had to make some examples. Pierre had participated in these operations. He remembered a pharmacist, shot in the street while loading his luggage into the trunk of his Mercedes. Killed to make an example out of him, wearing Bermuda shorts, a hand net under his harm. These were bitter memories, which Pierre was trying not to think too much about.

–We must show people that not taking sides has a cost. The Organization has set targets. People who work in contact with both communities and could provide information. This week, we’re taking care of the concierges. Next week, it will be the mailmen and telegraph operators’ turn. Then the doctors. Fabregas nervously laughed at the mention of his colleagues. Pierre, on the other hand, didn’t budge. Deep down, Fabregas envied him. Obviously, Pierre didn’t have his contacts, interpersonal skills and degrees, but people listened to him and appreciated his composure, the kind of modest distance he maintained while maneuvering and pettiness prevailed in those times. And he’d been to war, a fact about which Fabregas couldn’t boast.

From behind his desk, the stout man had repressed a belch, grimacing before informing them of their target.

—These two, we’re almost sure that they work with the FLN. They report the residents’ whereabouts and collect information. The couple runs a building mainly occupied by French officials, constantly eavesdropping on their conversations. You go there late in the day and obliterate them both. Nice and quick.

On this pleasant late afternoon, Peter and Scagna were therefore on their way to the St. Eugene neighborhood in a stolen car. At the other end of their route lived Latifa and Kamel Biraoui, twenty-seven and twenty-three years old, the meticulous concierges of a concrete building that mimicked Moorish architecture.

Peter felt relaxed. In recent months, these flights into action were his only distraction. The rest of the time, he worried himself sick. For the future of his family, for his country. How long had it been since he slept three hours in a row? Often, his vision blurred in front of the series of numbers he analyzed all day long at the Capitainerie. At other times, he could feel his chest becoming so narrow that he had to isolate himself in the restroom, freshen up, loosen his tie and catch his breath. At least, during operations like these, things were clear. He just had to follow the narrow path that led him to his target. His mind became incredibly sharp. Usually, beforehand, he took the time to go back home. There, he shaved, changed his shirt, poured water over his head and combed his hair with care. He particularly enjoyed these conspicuous moments of precision when he could, at last, bend reality to his will. He became more dangerous than a mechanic tool, fiercely devoted to his function, inhumanly efficient.

At his side, Scagna was sweating. He was starving. He felt uncomfortable and was in a hurry to finish the job. As for him, he worked at the customs administration, a strategic position for the Organization. It used to be a calm and comfortable position. From time to time, a box of whisky or a shipment of cheese lost its way and ended up in his drawers. These days, he had to make sure that the weapons coming from Egypt or Russia did not end up in the enemy’s hands and that the ones his friends expected were properly delivered. Since the beginning of the Events, he had gained twenty-six pounds. He felt melancholic about his past existence as an influential and cushy official. Administrative routine had given way to historic hassles, and he could not get over it.

Once there, Pierre couldn’t find a place to park. In this residential neighborhood, immaculate sedans were lined up between rows of four-meter-high palm trees. The smell of salt and saltpeter blended with the scents of lush plants. Oran lingered on the edge of the night. Patient and heavy, the night seemed to exhale from the ground in successive puffs. Some birds kept chirping merrily.

Ultimately, the two men left the car double-parked. In the trunk, they took the two Astra model 900 pistols that had been entrusted to them the day before, Spanish copies of the famous German Mauser semi-automatic weapons, reputed to be more reliable than theirs. These were the models used by the Guardia Civil, of which some Spanish friends had recently shipped two boxes. Pierre and Scagna simultaneously pulled the breech, a bullet loaded itself in each of the chambers, and they smiled at each other. Like true children, they were amused by the prospect of playing with a new toy. Carrying a gun in this heat, in shirtsleeves, they looked falsely casual. The Organization was quite influential in Oran. When it gave the order to violate the curfew, thousands of men, women and children wandered along the boulevards. Ice-cream shops made fortunes on these particular evenings.

They crossed the street in only three strides. With his pass Scagna opened the entrance gate of the building. The courtyard looked abandoned. In the flowerbeds, some cacti had managed to survive. Youssef, the gardener, didn’t come anymore. The small indoor fountain, covered with broken pieces of earthenware, had dried up. A turtle shell lay in a corner. Confused by the tranquility of the place, Scagna sought Pierre’s eyes, but his companion was looking up the sky. Scagna barely had time to glance at a woman hanging her laundry on the third floor; she was already back inside. Nobody wanted to know.

The Biraouis lived on the ground floor. There was only one entrance. Scagna used his pass one more time, and the two men rushed into the official accommodations, a low-ceilinged, two-bedroom apartment, dark and silent. Once the door closed, they started moving forward, the barrel of their guns pointed straight ahead. Scagna was breathing too loud, and, in a gesture of impatience, Pierre ordered him to get a hold of himself. As they kept moving, the smell of dinner became stronger. They could hear the clatter of dishes. Madame Biraoui was cooking. They entered the main room. It was clean, poorly furnished. On a shelf lay dusty, damaged books softened by use. A copper tray supported an old radio. Kamel Biraoui was sitting at the table, a pencil in hand, the newspaper opened in front of him. In an ashtray a cigarette was burning, its smoke winding through the still air. He looked up, Pierre extended his arm, a shot rang out, the concierge fell, face forward, on the table. Detonation ricocheted off the walls of the room. Stunned, the two intruders took a few seconds to recover. They believed they saw pieces of broken dishes, maybe not. With the hand holding his pistol, Pierre beckoned Scagna to go ahead. In the kitchen, they stumbled upon Latifa waiting for them. She clung to her knife, the blade pointing toward them. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t thinking. She didn’t move her lips. She prayed. Even though she had no faith, having long favored dialectics to the Koran’s suras. Scagna was taking aim at her; he couldn’t decide himself.

—Do it, said Pierre.

On the gas stove, eggs were boiling in water. They banged steadily inside the pot, producing a heavy pounding. Suddenly, a child’s cry rang out. The cries came from another room, over there in the back. Latifa’s prayers had been in vain.

Pierre swore before firing a bullet into the young woman’s mouth.

She looked like she was deflating, collapsing on the floor all at once, without a sound, or maybe just a rustling. They looked at her. An impressive amount of blood was slipping out of her demolished mouth. Bits of shattered teeth had flown across the room. The most curious part was her eyes, dark, beautiful and wide opened. For a second or two, the look of worry that had seized her before dying lingered.

It didn’t take Pierre long to find the apartment’s only bedroom. He swept it with a quick glance. A feeble light coming from the courtyard filtered through the shutters, falling on a mattress laid directly on the floor. On a dresser, a few toiletries. Two worn-out bath towels hung from the back of a chair. And a crib in which a little kid, two or slightly less, stood just orphaned, bawling. She was round-faced, open-eyed, and tears were dripping from her long black eyelashes. When Pierre got closer, the toddler’s cries intensified. She was calling for her mother.

Bothered by the crying, Pierre extended once again his armed hand. The barrel, still hot from the shooting, stopped a few centimeters from the small dark-haired head. Smaller than a handball. This idea amused him, and he told himself that this wasn’t so difficult after all. But he suddenly felt a presence in his back, and almost immediately an unpleasant sensation against his neck.

Do that and I'll blow your head off.

Scagna was sentimental in the end. His quavering voice and shaking hand revealed as much as the decision he had just made.

Pierre lowered his arm, and the child stopped crying for a second, curious about the change that had just taken place in the room. The two men took this opportunity to bolt. Behind them, as they were running, the toddler started to scream again.

In the courtyard, the laundry hanging from balconies flapped in the evening breeze, a fresh wind came from the port that smelled of iodine and fuel. Residents who had heard the gunshots were shutting themselves up. In a few minutes, they would call the police and swear they hadn’t seen anything. Scagna ran ahead, and Pierre was tempted to shoot him in the back. His heart pounded in spurts. Weird images crossed his mind. He knew that feeling well. It always did this to him. During the war, with a detached force from his regiment, they had stormed a small farm in the Vosges where a handful of exhausted German soldiers had retreated. There, for the first time, he had felt this burst, this almost painful energy boost, always accompanied by a strange taste that filled his mouth, as if biting into a silver fork. They had taken no prisoners that time, more out of fear than out of cruelty. They were still kids, seventeen-year-old Boshes, the Wehrmacht’s latest recruits, boy scouts thrown into the war like a handful of matches into a bonfire. Pierre had seen the last of these men who stood, soiling their pants. History was ridiculous like that. But not war. War had revealed his true nature. This strange, metallic taste filling his mouth. They swiftly emerged onto the street, and Scagna rushed to take the wheel, start the engine, engage the first gear and was about to get going when he realized that Pierre was standing next to him, on the driver’s side. He was waiting.

—I’m the one driving.

—Don’t be stupid. We’re already lucky nothing went wrong.

—I’m telling you to move!

Scagna complied, lifting his butt above the gear lever before letting himself fall onto the passenger seat.

—You’re completely out of your mind. What was that with the kid?

—Shut up! I don’t want to hear another word.

Pierre hadn’t looked at him. Before starting, he slipped the Astra model 900 under his seat. The man seated next to him did the same. Then he started heading toward the port. The air was soft and Pierre was driving fast, with only one hand, his left arm leaning against the car door. After loosening his tie, he asked for a cigarette.

—We need to get rid of the weapons, said Scagna.

—What did I tell you? Shut the fuck up now.

As the sun was setting, Scagna pulled up his window. He was feeling a bit cold now and also needed to piss badly. Not to mention he had lost his tinted sunglasses. He’d rather have been with his wife and kid in that moment. They were supposed to eat sausages that night. Monique would likely reproach him for being late. He would make do with a smile and whistle, unbutton his shirt, unfasten his belt, take off his pants and have dinner in his underwear, with his napkin over his shoulder. How thirsty he was suddenly! Besides, what was that route Pierre was taking?

—If you could make sure that we’re not being followed…

—Do not make me repeat this again, said Pierre, turning to him. His lips were so narrow one could have sworn it was a scar.

The Simca continued to make turns all over the city for a long time. The daylight was rapidly fading on the buildings’ facades, as happens every night on the seafront. Pierre smoked three cigarettes without dropping a word. The wind knocked at his face the way it would have at a closed door. Sometime, one has to understand the expression “to be beside oneself” quite literally.

—Here we go he finally blustered before slowing down.

A Coca Cola delivery truck was parked in front of the Météor café’s terrace, where some young men were drinking their aperitifs.

They were all wearing open-neck shirts, stretching out their legs with their heads thrown back. Two of them were wearing uniforms. They were adopting a blasé and casual attitude meant to appeal to girls.

Pierre stopped the Simca next to the delivery truck and retrieved the gun from under his seat before getting out of the car. Scagna wanted to scream.

At this precise moment the deliveryman emerged from the café to get another box of sodas. He was a Muslim, in his forties, his forehead lined with deep wrinkles. He wore blue-linen trousers held up by a string made of hemp. His sleeveless undershirt left his shoulders, angular and covered with hair, bare. He had good, tired eyes. When he saw the gun in Pierre’s hand, his face became even more rugged and his Adam's apple completed several back-and-forth trips at high velocity. His lips opened on sparkling teeth and nearly black gums. He was about to say something. He did not have the time. Pierre stuck a bullet in his forehead, like in a slaughterhouse. The other guy fell to the ground. On the terrace, everyone kept his mouth shut. Was it habit, fear, or simply the fact that he was just a bicot [5] after all? Pierre was already back to the car. Scagna kept his mouth shut, as required, and they left in no great haste, awfully respectful of traffic laws. Behind them, the café’s owner was asking the regulars to help him unload the rest of his tray. A French conscript, a kid from Montargis, finally stood up to call the police. His fingers were shaking so much he had to dial the number three times before getting it right.

 

[1] The “Algerian Events” (les Évènements d’Algérie) was a euphemism used by the French authorities to refer to the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962. To call it a war was taboo in France. Only in 1999 did the country pass a law officially allowing its citizens to use the term “Algerian War” (Guerre d'Algérie).

[2] Coco, derived from the verb cocotter, which comes from the animal cocotte (hen), means here to have a strong or bad smell. A coco describes, in a mocking and slightly derogatory way, the type of man who smells excessively cheap cologne.

[3] Pieds-Noirs (literally, “Black-Foot”) is a term referring to people of French and other European ancestry who lived in colonial French North Africa, including French Algeria, the French protectorate in Morocco, or the French protectorate of Tunisia until the end of French rule in North Africa between 1956 and 1962.

[4] The Metropolis (la Métropole) is how French citizens living in France’s colonial areas referred to France’s mainland.

[5] A contemptuous French term for an Arab person.