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  • Frantz Fanon: A Portrait
  • Benjamin Claude Brower
Frantz Fanon: A Portrait. By Alice Cherki, translated by Nadia Benabid. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.

This translation of Alice Cherki's 2000 French publication comes at a time of renewed interest in Franz Fanon. Richard Philcox’s much improved new translation of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004) testifies to this attention among Anglophone scholars, attention generated in part by the American-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the second intifada. Likewise in France, new editions of Fanon's most important texts have been issued by Editions La Découverte, contributing to that country’s ongoing reexamination of its colonial history. And in Algeria a resurgent interest in Fanon is marked by major conferences like “Fanon anti-colonial, Fanon postcolonial” hosted at Oran, where Fanon’s adoptive compatriots reflected on his work while deliberating the legacies of their colonial past.

Cherki entitles her book about Fanon’s life a “portrait,” or what she calls “a testimony once removed” (4). Motivated by Fanon's reticence to discuss his personal life, Cherki hopes to speak in the place of his silence. This project yields a curiously hybridized text. It is for the most part a biography, an account of Fanon’s life based upon written sources and interviews. But it is also a memoir. Cherki writes about people and events based on her special knowledge and personal experience. She knew Fanon between 1955 and his death in 1961, the period when Fanon became an activist for Algerian independence. The potentials for this mélange are rich. Cherki, born in 1936 to a family of Algerian Jews, knew Fanon as a colleague and shared his political struggles, having started as a courier for Algerian nationalists at the age of twenty. She is also a psychoanalyst and well placed to speak to the affective components of witnessing a traumatic past like wars of decolonization.

On the whole, however, Cherki writes a fairly conventional account. Her narrative is organized chronologically, beginning with Fanon’s flight from Vichy-controlled Martinique to join De Gualle’s army during World War II and ending with his death in the United States in 1961, months prior to Algeria's independence. Cherki also examines Fanon's influence in the world.

The story of Fanon's life is one that many readers now know thanks to David Macey's Frantz Fanon: A Biography (New York: Picador, 2000). As can be expected, Cherki and Macey's texts, written from different perspectives, provide different stories. Although Cherki's book is far from an “insider’s” history--she is protective of Fanon and her account proceeds with great discretion--it provides several previously unknown details about Fanon’s life. For example, we learn that it was Francis Jeanson, Fanon's editor, who coined the title Black Skins, White Masks (Fanon's own choice for his first book was Essai sur la désaliénation du noir). Cherki also tells us that Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the president of Algeria, helped a terminally-ill Fanon type the manuscript of The Wretched of the Earth. Finally, she writes that the anonymous Frenchman of Fanon's “Letter to a Frenchman” was most likely Dr. Lacaton, Fanon's colleague at the Blida clinic who supported Algerian independence.

Cherki joined Fanon as an intern in 1955, and Fanon: A Portrait gives a detailed account of his work at Blida, home to colonial Algeria's only public psychiatric hospital. This was an institution Fanon found to be the epitome of colonial oppression, marginal and marginalizing, and he sought to transform it. Based upon the model of sociotherapy he had learned as a student of François Tosquelles, an innovative psychiatrist who had fled Franco's Spain, Fanon's efforts brought excellent results with European patients. But the book describes how Fanon's reforms confronted the limits of his knowledge of Algerian society. These included language barriers--Fanon knew no Arabic or Berber--and the rules of gender in North African society. For example, Algerian men at Blida, many from rural origins, responded poorly to basket-weaving, an activity reserved in village life for...

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