Heather Rossiter

The Sword and the Cross by Fergus Fleming

reviewed by Heather Rossiter, 19/07/2003, Sydney Morning Hearld

Here is a paradox: a serious, almost scholarly account of French imperialism in North Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries which is impossible to read without screaming with laughter. The Battle of Tit is straight from the theatre of the absurd, and from the reports of General Henri Laperrine, the "sword" of the title, comes this piece of French farce. While touring a garrison almost lost in the Saharan emptiness, Laperrine challenged a young officer to the effect that pillaged caravans disrupted trade and "everything I saw did not tally with the optimism of his reports, and I instructed him to react vigorously at the first sign of aggression".

Fleming summarises what followed: "The lieutenant reacted more vigorously to the implied criticism of his leadership than to the threat of the natives - he mounted a razzia [raid], during the course of which he went mad, shot the leader of his troops, wounded a friendly chieftain and did no harm at all to the Tuareg before returning to In Salah where he was evacuated north for medical attention."

Posted to Africa, Lieutenant Vicomte Charles de Foucauld - aristocratic roue, embryo Saharan hermit and the titular "cross" - arrived in Algiers with mistress in tow. He was a passionate writer of letters, instructions, lists and diaries. These Fleming has plundered to wring a picture of his convoluted road from libertine to desert ascetic. In passages of joyful humour he presents the ambiguity of the compassionate scholar honouring the desert people by recording every nuance of language and fable while seeking, simultaneously, to change their spiritual lives - and the contradiction inherent in dedicating his austere life to God while giving military advice to his friend Laperrine on how best to steal territory from the Tuareg people.

Someone who knew Laperrine, Foucauld and the desert wrote: "The only endemic disease of the Sahara is madness." The author dissects the madness of these two obsessed characters, the complex and fascinating Sword and Cross.

Fleming has written three books set in terrible cold; in The Sword and the Cross he convincingly conveys the desert's misery and magnificence. Yet, despite the wit and narrative pace, this is a curiously old-fashioned account of the struggle for control of the Sahara: derring-do aplenty for the French, but the Tuareg, not set against their own proud history, are stock characters without dignity. Not fair in the 21st century, Fergus.

Still, I can't wait for the movie.


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