A Heroine in a Murky World
Anne Beaumanoir and the Ethics of Resistance
European literature | Book Review
A German writer and translator who lives in Paris, Anne Weber writes in both French and German. She has translated works by Marguerite Duras and Cécile Wajsbrot into German, and, unusually for a translator, works by Birgit Vanderbeke, Sybille Lewitscharoff and Wilhelm Genazino into her non-native French. Her masterly bilingualism frequently finds expression in a self-reflective questioning of words and expressions in both languages, playfully making strange what was once familiar. For her latest experimental and yet highly readable novel, Annette, ein Heldinnenepos, Weber was justly awarded the prestigious Deutsche Buchpreis 2020.
The book is a bold and moving exploration of the ethics of heroism, told through episodic insights into the extraordinary life of Annette Beaumanoir. As a Heldinnenepos (a “heroine epic”), it is at once artistically stunning and politically significant. It is also relatively short. Yet Weber’s eloquent prose effortlessly achieves both the depth and breadth of much bulkier self-declared epics. Visually mimicking verse through the use of, for the most part, apparently arbitrary line-breaks, she vacillates between the philosophical and irreverent, the serious and occasionally puerile, the tragic and (very drily) comic.
Annette opens with a reminder of its subject’s life beyond the page. Now in her late nineties, Beaumanoir lives in Dieulefit in the South of France. Having been introduced to her, we are then swiftly taken back to her beginnings. Born in Brittany in 1923, she became active in the Resistance during the Nazi occupation of France, and saved the lives of two Jewish civilians from a raid on Paris. After the war, she became a neurophysiologist, married and had two children. Appalled by the atrocities perpetrated by the French forces in Algeria during the war of independence (1954–62), she began to work undercover for the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). When this work was exposed, she was put on trial for terrorism and, pregnant with her third child, sentenced in 1959 to ten years in prison. Remarkably, less than a year into her sentence, she managed to escape to Tunisia, and then, from 1962, worked under Ahmed Ben Bella in the Department of Health in the newly independent Algeria. When Bella was toppled from power in 1965, Annette had to escape once more, to Switzerland, where she became the director of the neurophysiology department of the University Hospital of Geneva. She was eventually permitted to return to France, where she has been living for almost thirty years.
Weber’s approach to this remarkable life story is not to focus on her heroine’s individual psychology. She recognizes that Annette’s life is situated on a much broader canvas, encompassing the fall of fascism in Europe, the latter days of colonialism, and the often tragic consequences of liberation struggles. When Annette learns about the French army’s torturing of Algerian freedom fighters, she asks herself: “Hat sie vielleicht / den Kopf für dieses Land riskiert, damit es ein paar / Jahre darauf die Methoden der SS anwendet? / Erbitterung und Wut”. (Has she really / risked her life for this country so that / a few years later, it uses SS methods itself? / Bitterness and anger.) She asks herself the same question when, years later, she discovers that Algerians, too, resorted to torture and murder both during and after their fight for independence. At the heart of Weber’s book is the instability of our conceptions of heroism, nuanced by hindsight. The novel is haunted by the core dilemma with which all resistance fighters wrestle: do the ends justify the means?
Although Beaumanoir’s life is bound to evoke admiration in most readers, Weber steers clear of hagiography. Serious, and often tragic, Annette’s actions and motives are constantly questioned by the narrator, who brings a broader ethical perspective to bear. A sober ironic distance is the narrator’s primary characteristic. In one aside, we learn about the grim political reality Ben Bella creates in the FLN. Once in power, he puts his enemies and competitors into prison, “wie jeder andere an seiner Stelle / es vermutlich auch gehandhabt hätte” (just like most others in his position / would probably have done as well). At times an eccentric guide, the narrator frequently breaks the unity of time and place, sharing knowledge about what will become of people and places at a later date. The success of her ethical exploration hinges on Weber’s dry humour, which is sometimes impish, sometimes searching, but always compassionate – and almost always pitch-perfect.
To choose a relatively unknown, female partisan fighter, whose courage is perhaps more notable than her overall impact on history, is a powerful statement in its own right. But Annette is also about the craft of storytelling: it pushes linguistic, narrative and genre conventions to their limits, while posing big ethical questions, as its heroine’s idealism comes up against dirty realpolitik. Annette herself is far from being saint-like: though her motives are often pure, she frequently finds herself entangled in a murky world. She is best understood as the incarnation of courage rather than of goodness. What remains clear throughout is the extraordinary bravery required to put one’s values above concerns for personal safety, abstract notions of justice above individual happiness, and political ideals above one’s children or partner. Weber’s rousing epic is a clear-eyed reflection on these competing priorities.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. She is working on a global history of the idea of self-improvement
February 19, 2021 Read this issue
IN THIS REVIEW ANNETTE, EIN HELDINNENEPOS 207pp. Matthes und Seitz. €22. Anne Weber