BOOK REVIEW / Algeria: the final convulsion in a tragic farce: De Gaulle and Algeria - Michael Kettle: Quartet, pounds 45

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The Independent Online
IN THE late Fifties, after covering the Algerian war as a reporter for the Sunday Times, Michael Kettle wrote what he describes as a 'quick' book, based on his own diary and the other sources, such as the local press, which were available at the time. Rightly or wrongly, all the publishers he showed it to turned it down, and he went on to cover other wars, in the Middle East and Africa, before becoming a historian.

Now he has produced what might be called - but only because of the period of time it has been maturing in the bottle, not because of any lack of narrative pace - a slow book on the Algerian war. What he has done is to graft together his own diary entries, often of great value and interest, with the political reporting of the British embassy in Paris and the British consul-general in Algiers.

Our man in Paris at the time of the Algerian crisis and the return of De Gaulle to power in 1958 was Sir Gladwyn Jebb, a diplomat of great experience and perspicacity. Our man in Algiers was R F G 'Rod' Sarell, who appears, from Kettle's use of his reporting, to be a man in the tradition of Kipling's Colonel Strickland. Like Strickland, the intelligence officer who found a use for Kim's talents, Sarell had a network of informants, ranging from murderous corporals in the Foreign Legion to elderly lady missionaries on the fringes of the desert.

Mainly from these three strands, Kettle has woven a fresh and gripping account of the Algerian tragedy. He was himself present at many of the tense confrontations in the Kasbah, the Forum and the Aletti hotel of which we have heard in other accounts, and he gives many memorable word-pictures of those days of heat and anger. The photographs, many of them taken by the author at the time, also enrich the record.

In certain respects, indeed, his book improves upon that modern classic, Alastair Horne's A Savage War of Peace, whose success appears to irritate Kettle; more than once he observes that it has been accepted in Britain as the last word on the Algerian war, with the strong implication that it is not that, and perhaps Kettle has a point. Horne's book, for all its power and mandarin elegance, was written more than 15 years ago, and Kettle can claim both to have turned up new information, and to have corrected errors. In particular, he is convincing when he argues that Horne's casualty figures, particularly for the casualties inflicted by the FLN on their own Arab and Berber people, are serious underestimates.

Kettle's insights into the internal politics of the Algerian rebellion are not particularly noteworthy, and his book has the unusual fault of being too short, even at well over 600 pages, in the sense that he stops after the tragic farce of the Day of the Barricades, and before the final convulsion of the French army's abortive attempt to carry the war to metropolitan France.

His general position is more sympathetic than Horne was to De Gaulle's attempts to manoeuvre towards independence without losing control of the army. He has certainly no sympathy for the ultras, and he shows no sign of having ever imagined that any solution short of independence was possible in the long run. However, he is notably less sympathetic to the Algerian nationalists than most previous historians. The explanation lies, perhaps, partly in the fact that he has seen the promise of the Algerian revolution betrayed by hard-boiled colonels, pseudo-

Stalinists and gloomy fanatics; partly in the fact that, as a reporter on the scene with excellent contacts, he was aware even at the time of just to what savage lengths the FLN was prepared to go.

Kettle rightly points out that almost all forms of opposition to the present Algerian regime, the heir of the revolution, have now been recruited to the cause of fundamentalism, and that the country is once again in danger of plunging into civil war. His political insights into the cynical way in which all parties, but especially the United States and the Soviet Union, sought to draw the Algerian conflict into the Cold War are of no less interest now that Cold War is over. Other cold - and hot - wars are taking its place, not least those between the West and Islam.

What makes this book worth reading, however, is the quality of the author's insights, not into politics, but into the timeless nature of Algerian society. His account of a journey to Oran and Tlemcen, the Spanish city and the holy city of Islam, has all the sharp highlights and the sombre background tones of a story by Paul Bowles. As an immensely readable account of a historical episode of abiding importance, as well as for its contribution to detailed understanding of the war and the political struggle behind it, this is a book of quality and lasting value.

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