A Semi­te

Denis Gué­noun

  • Review
By – November 20, 2014

Denis Gué­noun com­piled this bio­graph­i­cal sketch of his father, René Gué­noun, by rely­ing on his own mem­o­ries and dig­ging through sev­er­al box­es of fam­i­ly doc­u­ments and corre­spondence. Along with a clas­sic mem­oir about a par­ent, the read­er gets a his­to­ry of French Algeria.

A school­teacher but also a pas­sion­ate com­mu­nist, the author’s father finds him­self, more than once, on the wrong side of the polit­i­cal fence. The Gué­noun fam­i­ly had resided in Alge­ria from time immemo­r­i­al,” but only his gen­er­a­tion took on a greater alle­giance to France, the colo­nial pow­er. Before that, the dis­tinc­tion between Arab and Jew was flu­id; thus, when the child nar­ra­tor asks his father, ear­ly on in the nar­ra­tive, Why not live as Arabs among the Arabs?” the father answers, Here’s why: the French came. France lift­ed us out of that life.” He refers to the French decree of 1870 declar­ing all Jews of Alge­ria French cit­i­zens, but not the Arabs who lived there. The father explains: Your great-grand­fa­ther spoke Ara­bic. Your grand­fa­ther, Ara­bic and French. Me, your father, French and a lit­tle Ara­bic. You French only.”

In con­trast, the family’s Jew­ish alle­giance is min­i­mal. Passover is re­ferred to as East­er;” cir­cum­ci­sion as bap­tism.” For a long time the father objects to his son’s cir­cum­ci­sion until the more tra­di­tion­al grand­moth­er— who also, much to the father’s cha­grin, keeps con­tribut­ing mon­ey to the Zion­ists — wins out.

When, in the after­math of World War I, nation­al alle­giances become more press­ing, the father advo­cates, Equal­i­ty of all. Fra­ter­ni­ty with­out lim­its. […] The world shared by all, cleansed of reli­gions […] And the Jews — but there will be no more Jews because Judaism is a reli­gion and there will be no more reli­gion.” This mem­oir brings to life the com­mu­nist ide­al that failed so ter­ri­bly in the Sovi­et Union; the ide­al that the father espous­es to the very end of his life, unwill­ing to believe the atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted in the Com­mu­nist coun­tries against all those who want­ed to have their own opin­ion and keep their cul­ture. When his neigh­bors in his Alger­ian home­town of Oran fight for keep­ing Alge­ria French, while the rest fights for the inde­pen­dence that even­tu­al­ly comes, the family’s posi­tion becomes unten­able. Rely­ing on his own mem­o­ry, the author pro­vides a stun­ning slow-motion ren­der­ing of the vio­lent inci­dent that makes them flee to France.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this oth­er­wise suc­cinct mem­oir takes an odd turn toward the end. Instead of end­ing with the father’s death, the last chap­ters share the father’s bur­ial, then the mother’s, and lat­er the pro­sa­ic com­bi­na­tion of their graves. This leaves the read­er with the uncom­fort­able feel­ing of hav­ing been privy to the author’s unre­solved con­tem­pla­tion of mor­tal­i­ty, which is inter­est­ing in and of itself, but doesn’t quite res­onate with this mem­oir of a world­view and a cul­ture oblit­er­at­ed by history.

Relat­ed content:

Annette Gendler’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Jour­nal, Tablet Mag­a­zine, Kveller, Bel­la Grace, and Art­ful Blog­ging, among oth­ers. She served as the 2014 – 2015 writer-in-res­i­dence at the Hem­ing­way Birth­place Home in Oak Park, Illi­nois. Born in New Jer­sey, she grew up in Munich, Ger­many, and now lives in Chica­go where she teach­es mem­oir writing.

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