Monday, 26 August 2013

Alice Cherki's 'Frantz Fanon: A Portrait'

Reviewed by Zamakhize Mkhize

Alice Cherki provides us with a book about Fanon’s life which she describes as “an effort to convey, despite its shortcomings and incompletion, an epoch, a life and a body of work often viewed as inadmissible” (Cherki, 2000:4). Cherki is motivated by Fanon’s reluctance to speak about his private life. This text takes many forms as it is not only a biography of Fanon’s life based on written sources and interviews but it also constitutes a memoir. Cherki knew Fanon in the period between 1955 when he arrived in Algeria to work as a psychoanalyst until his death in 1961. The significance of these years is that they constitute the time period of Fanon’s critical involvement in the fight for Algerian independence.

In the first chapter of the book titled ‘Before Blida’ Cherki discusses the events that defined Fanons life and his personality. Thus this chapter focuses on Fanon’s childhood in Martinique and events that shaped his convictions as an adult such as a school excursion at age ten where Fanon found himself intrigued with the concept and injustice of slavery. Another focal point of the chapter is when Fanon joined the French Army in a bid to fight against Nazism at age eighteen. Fanon had resolved that “whenever human dignity and freedom are at stake, it involves us, whether we be black, white or yellow. And whenever these are threatened in any corner of the Earth, I will fight them to the end.” (Cherki, 2000:10). However this stance was soon shattered by the realities that Fanon experienced in the French Army. There were frequent food shortages and black soldiers were treated as second class citizens. It would seem that it was at this point that Fanon realised that his previous stance on liberty was not entirely correct and there would always would be divisions between black and white even when it came to the question of freedom and human dignity.

Cherki then focuses on Fanon time spent in Lyon as a student. This is when, despite being a medical student, he familiarised himself with the works of Hegel, Lenin and Marx. During his time spent at Lyon Fanon wrote on of his earliest publications Le Syndrome Nord- Africain which exposed the racism inherent in the French medical profession. It was a consideration of how North African’s were turned away in by French medical professionals when they reported pain. Fanon believed that by denying the African’s propensity to feel pain, the French were denying their very existence.

In the next chapter Cherki focuses on a description of Algerian society in 1953 when Fanon arrived to work in Blida. She traces Algeria’s ethnic make-up at the time and the racial divisions that persisted in the society. Cherki highlights the forms of segregation and the social climate in Algeria and its institutions and this is significant because it indicated how such a society would have affected Fanon. Factors such as segregation in hospitals, sports teams and even schools “played a key role in introducing him to the Algerian cause” (Cherki, 2000; 45).
Cherki continuously makes links between Fanon’s political cause and his medical work. At Blida Fanon worked constantly with the FLN guerrilla leaders in a medical capacity and thus that influenced his political affiliations. Cherki argues that Fanon the psychiatrist and Fanon the militant cannot be completely separated, this is because it was his work as a psychiatrist that brought him to the attention of the FLN. Furthermore it was “his work with the mentally ill, those other wretched of the earth that served as a springboard for his theories of colonization” (Cherki, 2000;179).  
Cherki then discusses Fanon’s resignation from Blida in 1956 and his short return to Paris before settling in Tunisia in 1957.At this point Cherki breaks away from maintaining Fanon’s idealised image by critiquing his thought process. Cherki believes that limits of Fanon’s work were not only contained in that he did not consider the relationship between religion and politics but also that his understanding of the workings of the nationalist movement prior to 1954 was inadequate. Cherki also notes that in the time Fanon spent in Tunis, there was a disparity between his ideologies and that of his social circle, which was made up mostly of cosmopolitan French people and other Europeans.

In the chapter that Cherki calls Fanon in Africa focuses on his contribution to other African states when he travels as the Algerian provisional government ambassador to Africa. At this point Fanon advocated a complete break from French culture and French interests in francophone countries such as Senegal, Cameroon and the Ivory Coast as well as Algeria.

The significance of this book despite it being largely biographical in nature, it is this text that Cherki illustrates that Fanon’s works can still tell us a lot about the contemporary world. Moreover what makes this text particularly relevant is that it seeks to refute the notion that Fanon was merely an advocate of violent insurrection. Cherki believes that this view of Fanon stems from Sartre’s foreword in The Wretched of the Earth. She argues that Sartre “justified violence whereas Fanon had analysed it and not promoted it as an end in itself but as a necessary phase of decolonisation” (Cherki, 2000; 181). Thus this facilitates a better understanding of Fanon and his stance on violence.

Thus Cherki’s Frantz Fanon: A portrait provides an in-depth look into Fanon’s life which allows insight to the factors and events that shaped his convictions and his ideology. It allows the reader to gain insight on who Fanon was as a person and his experiences and how that impacted on his work. Ultimately this book allows the reader to understand Fanon, his aims and his work with more clarity.