Thomas Givon’s absorbing and accomplished first novel, Running Through the Tall Grass, is an instructive inquiry into the disordered yet passionate conflicts—historical, ethnic, and national—visited on Algeria as it sought to free itself from the French. This brief story portrays the complexity of a society striving to free itself from colonialism without imbuing the narrative with an ideological agenda.
Post-Napoleonic France turned Algeria into a colony in 1830, populating it not with the French but with a diverse group of Mediterraneans bent on starting a new life in a new land, with the benefit of a new citizenship. Over the next century, these people, called pied noirs—black feet—identified themselves with their colonial masters, and not with the indigenous Arabs. We join this unfolding story in May 1962 and follow it to its tragic but muted climax in January 1963.
The fictional protagonist, Robert Aron, Jew, pied noir, and patriotic Frenchman, joins the French Foreign Legion. He is shipped to Indochina, and following that, to the Kabylia Mountains in Algeria, where he fights against Arabs seeking to regain their country. This "reluctant plastique artist, magus of high explosives and bright thunders" is withdrawn from battle in 1957, when the French abandon the battle in the mountains.
Within a few years, to the dismay of Aron and his comrades, the French negotiate to return the country to the Arabs, leading to the formation of the secret opposition army, the OAS. As the novel opens, nineteen-year-old Margaret Laforge, Aron’s girlfriend, tells the story of Robert and his group as they blow up a hospital in a section of occupied Algiers.
Accompanying Robert is his companion from Vietnam, Jojo, a fanatical ideologue who is suspicious of Robert’s waning interest in the struggle, and his growing interest in Margaret. Their conflict climaxes in Robert’s nighttime escape to Marseilles, where he hopes to elude the OAS and arrange for Margaret to join him. The committed pied noirs of the OAS will not allow that to happen, and, surprisingly, Robert is waylaid and shipped off to the Congo with Jojo. There they fight as mercenaries in a conflict remarkably analogous to Algeria’s. On a deserted airstrip near Katanga, Robert finds he must make a choice among his conflicted loyalties as a Jew, pied noir, comrade, and lover.
"In Algiers … where you come from is who you are. Forever." Yet, this is the central conflict for Robert, who has difficulty finding his identity as a Jew, a Frenchman, or a resistance fighter. Nearing thirty, he finds that the Jews offer no hope, as they are "obstinate and obsessed, plagued by their compounded histories, their ancient lore and convoluted identity, driven by treasured old grievances, ever-bleeding stigmata."
Nor do the French provide a spiritual home for the pied noirs. As Jojo remarks, the pied noirs are "France’s new Juives. … They lured our grandfathers to Algeria, our promised land. Only it turned out to be a false promise. We’ve shed our blood for them like the bunch of dupes we were. Now they’ve turned around and thrown us to the Arabs."
Even his "associates, if you wish to call them that, are fast reverting to primordial rock-bottom, trigger-happy sociopaths thrashing about in a dense homicidal fog."
As Thomas Flanagan’s Year of the French did for Ireland, Running Through the Tall Grass uncovers the spines between the heterogeneous layers of a diverse Algerian society. It vividly portrays the blood, the passion, the brutality, and the panoramic messiness of a polyglot society attempting to spawn violently a new identity from repressed heterogeneous groups vying for dominance. This novel marks an impressive debut, and, given the current rule by religious extremists in Algeria, one worthy of our attention.