Where I Left My Soul

Written by Geoffrey Strachan (trans.) Jerome Ferrari
Review by Sarah Bower

André Degorce is a man whose life has been both formed and distorted by the history of France in the 20th century. Internment in Buchenwald as a teenage resistance fighter diverts him from a career as a mathematician to the “absolute necessity” of becoming a professional soldier. He fights at Diên Biên Phu and is imprisoned by the Viet Minh, and now, as this brief, intense novel opens, he is presiding over a military prison in Algiers in 1957. Once his prisoners are “processed”, they are handed over to Lieutenant Andreani, who also served with him in Indochina, who makes them “disappear”. Degorce’s bad conscience finally becomes intolerable in the presence of Tahar, a leader of the Algerian resistance, who becomes the focus of his revulsion for his work as an army interrogator. While he honours Tahar’s achievements, Andreani wants only to see Tahar hang.

This novel is a profound meditation on colonialism and the way in which it corrupts the souls of those who are obliged to serve it. The bleak circularity of the lives of its three principals shows how easy it is for the hero to become the villain, how noble sentiments can lead to unspeakable acts and how a man can become a stranger to himself and his family once he is lost in the paradoxical maze of committing terrible deeds for “good” ends. Although its setting is historical, its geopolitical relevance in our post-Arab Spring world is clear.

In a fine translation by Geoffrey Strachan, Ferrari’s novel makes the paradox deeply personal and visceral. Its graphic scenes of torture are disturbingly erotic, and that raises a number of uncomfortable questions for readers as well as for the characters in the novel.