When the review copy of A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962, by Alistair Horne, hit my desk at National Review in 1977, I found a reviewer immediately and waited for a second copy to follow from the publisher (as is so often the case in the publishing business). When it failed to arrive, I made a mental note to buy the book from the Strand Book Store on lower Broadway—but never got round to doing so. Three revised editions appeared over the next 30 years, the last of them in 2006. All of them missed me somehow. When, a week ago, I found a paperback edition in a secondhand bookshop, I bought it. And have now begun to read it.
To call A Savage War of Peace (title courtesy of Kipling) great history is a severe understatement. It is a superb work of literature embracing narrative, political and cultural history, ethnology, and travel writing of a sort. Sir Alistair, who died last year, was a good friend of Bill Buckley’s; I met him once, at WFB’s funeral Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 2008, but only with a handshake. The encounter was too brief to form a personal impression. Horne’s book, however, shows a stylist, a poet, a person of superior intellect, and a supremely civilized man, one able to convey the feel of an epic struggle between civilization and barbarism (on both sides) marked by acts of savagery and heroism (also on both sides) and involving many cultures, including French culture and those of the various African peoples that fought with and opposed the French. I can’t think of another writer, including the English Arabists Sir Richard Burton, Wilfred Thesiger, and even Charles Doughty, who captures the sense of the Muslim world and of northern Africa more intensely than Horne does. His immensely poetic and evocative descriptions of coastal Algeria, of the Atlas Mountains running parallel to the sea south of the strung-out port cities, and of the wild and savage country populated by the reciprocally savage but fascinating tribes still farther south, are a lesson to people who read of such things only in newspapers or see images of them on television and assume, unconsciously, that they have received a realistic impression to hold in mind—not suspecting that it is comparable to a Triple A roadmap, a blank white page marked with colored lines and a few green patches to represent forests, and blue ones lakes.
A Savage War of Peace succeeds equally as a cultural history of a critical chapter in the history of France. The spirit of Camus, the great pied-noir novelist and clearly a favorite author of Sir Alistair’s, so far infuses almost every page.