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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Question

Henri Alleg

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Question

Title: The Question
Author: Henri Alleg
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1958 (Eng. 1958)
Length: 107 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Question - US
The Question - UK
The Question - Canada
La question - France
  • French title: La question
  • Translated by John Calder
  • With a new Afterword by the author, translated by David L. Schalk
  • With a Foreword by Ellen Ray (2006)
  • With an Introduction by James D. Le Sueur (2006)
  • With a Preface by Jean-Paul Sartre (1958)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : disturbing historical document, useful reminder

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Bookforum . 9-11/2006 David Levi Strauss
The New Republic . 30/6/1958 Percy Winner
The NY Times Book Rev. . 8/6/1958 D.W.Brogan
Time . 9/6/1958 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Henri Alleg's incendiary little book (.....) (S)uccinct and affecting" - David Levi Strauss, Bookforum

  • "Written with spare and simple candor, the book is much more than a scalding footnote to fever-hot headlines. The Question does not stop with the Algerian question but goes on to ask: What does it mean to be a human being ? It tells of the shame and glory of man." - Time

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Henri Alleg's account of being tortured by the French authorities in Algeria in the late 1950s was a landmark book, a bestseller that "has the distinction of being the first book banned in France since the eighteenth century" and was widely translated. The introductory material, including Jean-Paul Sartre's piece, provides much of the background and the circumstances surrounding the Alleg-case, and the story surrounding the book and the man is an interesting one in and of itself.
       A Frenchman living in Algeria, Alleg was the publisher of the leftist Alger républicain. He was arrested by the French (though he doesn't mention any specific charge being made against him) and almost immediately subjected to a gruesome series of tortures, in order to get him to talk (about who he worked with and for, and where they can be found). The descriptions of the torture are striking and horrible (and fortunately not too extensive), but an equally strong impression is left by the descriptions of those doing the dirty work. For the most part, it seems they were just trying to push his body to see how much it could take; getting actual information doesn't seem to have been that high a priority (or if it was they sure did a bad job in how they went about trying to break him). When they dope him up on pentothal (to use a different -- and doctor-assisted -- approach) the attempt to get him to talk is almost comic.
       It's a ridiculous game, with human beings as the playthings -- and it's completely surreal, as when one of the big paras asks:

     'Were you tortured in the Resistance ?'
     'No; it's the first time,' I replied.
     'You've done well,' he said with the air of a connoisseur. 'You're very tough.'
       Alleg's book is perhaps most shocking because it shows torture simply as another way of life. Sure, officially the French weren't too proud of it and denied they were doing this, but for all these people it was just business as usual, pointless violence and evil institutionalised. There were some participants who obviously didn't feel comfortable with what they were doing, and showed some sort of mercy to the victims; others were completely merciless.
       Sartre sums things up well in his Preface, including the observation:
     Appalled, the French are discovering this terrible truth: that if nothing can protect a nation against itself, neither its traditions nor its loyalties nor its laws, and if fifteen years are enough to transform victims into executioners, then its behaviour is not more than a matter of opportunity and occasion. Anybody, at any time, may equally find himself victim or executioner.
       He also notes:
     Torture is neither civilian nor military, nor is it specifically French: it is a plague infecting our whole era. There are brutes East as well as West.
       That was half a century ago, but the plague remains. Indeed, his discussion is just as relevant as ever, the arguments much the same:
     How are the torturers justified ? It is sometimes said that it is right to torture a man if his confession can save a hundred lives. This is nice hypocrisy.
     Arrests are made at random. Every Arab can be 'questioned' at will. The majority of the tortured say nothing because they have nothing to say unless, to avoid torture, they agree to bear false witness or confess to a crime they have not committed.
       As the other introductory pieces note, the book is sadly relevant again today, as the United States has joined the list of pathetic nations that employ torture (using, among other things, the creative excuse that what they do isn't torture, at least not the way they define it (never mind that it is according to everybody else's definition ...)).
       Alleg's Afterword, from almost five decades after the events, still betrays considerable bitterness, not so much about what was done to him as to how those responsible were protected by the authorities. Remarkably, wholesale condemnation of these practices, past and present, is hard to find, the practise excused as necessity or the torturers excused as just doing their duty -- so, too, now in the United States..
       In her Foreword Ellen Ray warns that: "today in the United States we run risk that the public has become anesthetized to what is happening", but it seems more like there simply isn't that widespread moral outrage that such conduct calls for: far too many citizens buy the administration line that in the 'war against terror' anything goes -- even a little bit of torture (especially when it's done offshore, and mainly to those darker-skinned foreigners ...). Perhaps Alleg's account can help open some eyes to the dehumanizing futility of torture in practise; one can always hope.

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The Question: Reviews: La Question - the film:

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About the Author:

       Henri Alleg is French journalist who was editor of Alger républicain.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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