This is a short book, and it has a reason for being short; Henri Alleg penned it on brown wrapping paper while still in prison, and had it smuggled to France for publication. In The Question, he recounts how he was tortured by the notorious Paras (the elite paratroop division of the french military in Algeria) because he, as a communist, supported the cause of the Algerian people. Aleg is taken to the ‘centre de tri’ after he is captured. He is beaten, water boarded, savagely electrocuted, and burnt in sensitive places with fire. All the while, his torturers want the names of the people who helped him go into hiding, and provided him with safehouses. Although Alleg makes it very clear in the beginning that he would not answer any questions, even the simplest ones, the torturers keep on, with the hope that he will break down at some point.
The episodes of torture described by Alleg are blood-curdling. Especially his experiences with the electric shocks made me clench my teeth with sympathy for his pain. The longer lasting effect on the reader, though, stems from the way the french soldiers, only fifteen years after their nation’s experience with fascism, practice a racist kind of fascism themselves, even telling Alleg at one point that they are worse than the SS themselves. The torturers are not acting solely to gather information, of course. They are acting out of their racism and hate towards someone who dared to side with the “wogs” although he was a Frenchman himself. This becomes clear from the way the torturers talk to Alleg, and how they treat the Algerian prisoners even worse. The experimental truth serum pentothal is also used at some point. Alleg’s description of this experience is very interesting; he talks about dreaming that he was walking in the streets of a city he didn’t know, followed by the man questioning him, and finding it very difficult not to answer his questions.
Sartre has written an introduction to the original publication in French, and that introduction is also translated here. This beautiful text on torture makes Alleg’s story all the more lucid and relevant by putting it into the context of racism and colonialism. As Sartre observes, the fact that there are french soldiers all too ready to torture others after occupation by the Nazis shows that who tortures whom is merely a question of occasion; given the reasons, all nations will find the torturers among them and put them to work. The invalid conclusion from this is to think that we as humans are inherently inhuman, and the descent into uncontrolled violence is ineluctable. Alleg’s –and of those who dare to stand to their torturers and not betray their companions– achievement is to show what a sordid game the torturers are playing, and reclaim humanity.
Alleg has written another postscript for this edition, and the publishers a foreword connecting his story to the revelations of torture carried out by the US armed forces in Iraq (although extraordinary rendition has been practiced a long time before that, and should also be counted as active participation in torture). It’s interesting that the first method the Paras used on Alleg was waterboarding, which the US American authorities called “enhanced interrogation”, and defended as not being torture. Judging from the circumstances, Alleg’s and Sartre’s precious lesson that torture can be done only when the victim is dehumanized is unfortunately still bitter reality, and all the more reason to read this book.