Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 17, 2022

The Art of Losing, by Alice Zeniter, translated by Frank Wynne

Winner of the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (2017), the Prix Landerneau des lecteurs (2017), and the Prix littéraire Le Monde (2017), The Art of Losing (L’art de perdre) by Alice Zeniter was recommended to me by Stu at Winston’s Dad where he speculated that this novel was the French version of Windrush fiction. The novel is a meditation on loss for three generations of a family of French-Algerian heritage — a family that has heritage in both countries but belongs in neither.

Bookended by Naïma’s reluctant quest to interrogate her family’s roots, The Art of Losing is the story of her grandfather Ali who became a refugee in France in the tumult of Algerian independence, and her father Hamid who remembers nothing of Algeria and who has reinvented himself in France.  Naïma, who never knew her grandfather, has grown up knowing nothing of their family or its history, primarily because of her father’s shame.  Hamid learned early on never to mention the year of his arrival as a child in France because that year identifies him as one of the despised Harkis.  Wikipedia explains the reason for that intergenerational shame:

Harki […] (a group of volunteers, especially soldiers) is the generic term for native Muslim French who served as auxiliaries in the French Army during the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962. The word sometimes applies to all French Muslims who supported French Algeria during the war. The motives for enlisting in the Harkis were mixed. They are regarded as traitors in Algeria and thousands were killed after the war in reprisals despite the Évian Accords ceasefire and amnesty stipulations.

The Art of Losing is partly about being on the ‘wrong side’.  A contemporary analogy might be the plight of Afghanis: those who were on the ‘wrong side’ when the Mujahidin ‘liberated’ Afghanistan from the Soviets, or on the ‘wrong side’ when the Taliban took over, or on the ‘wrong side’ when the Americans ‘liberated’ the country from the Taliban, or on the ‘wrong side’ when America and its allies abandoned Afghanistan and the Taliban took over again.  Being on the ‘wrong side’ can be a legacy of colonialism, as it is in this novel, but it happens in all kinds of conflicts including the current civil wars in Yemen and Ethiopia. Whatever happens, there will be people on the ‘wrong side’ amongst the refugees.  Like the characters in The Art of Losing they will have chosen the losing side.

Ali was doing well in his village under the French.  His ambitions were limited, but as a wealthy owner of an olive grove he had a secure income, a home that surpassed his expectations, and power and status in the village.  When the independence movement emerged in the 1950s, his brother supported the FLN (National Liberation Front) but Ali sided with the French.  Branded a traitor in 1962, he took refuge in France, and was considered ‘lucky’ by some because he is able to take his family with him.

France permitted immigration of the people of Algerian heritage along with the ‘pied-noirs’ i.e. people of French heritage born in Algeria, but the welcome and resettlement options offered to these different populations varied. For two years Ali and his family were segregated in the Rivesaltes Refugee Camp under deplorable conditions, and were sent after that to a forest work camp, where the housing was marginally better but schooling for the children was haphazard.  It is not until they were resettled in a tiny apartment in Normandy that the eldest boy Hamid received a proper education.  He was a bright boy and grew up to become estranged from his family.  In Paris after his baccalaureate he reinvented himself as French, married a French woman and refused to engage at all with his Algerian heritage.  In the present day his daughter Naïma takes no interest in it either, until her work in an art gallery requires her to visit an ageing Algerian artist called Lalla.  Filled with justifiable fear that hatreds are still smouldering in the village, she defers getting a visa…

The novel, however, is about much more that the plot outline.  Zeniter doesn’t just illustrate the racism and discrimination in France, it also shows the barbarity of the conflict in Algeria; the racism of Algerians against the Blacks; the sexism of a patriarchal society; the conflicts within the refugee camps and the way that Algerians in France preyed upon each other.  There’s a very moving scene when Yema — struggling to make a home in the cramped Normandy apartment where with smiles, brochures, promises and loans they are pressured to buy insurance, a car, a vacuum cleaner, and encyclopaedias and where the cherished objects to be used every day have become curios — is conned by a saleswoman who exploits her nostalgia.

During the day, while Ali is at work and Hamid is at school, a different type of rep calls, usually women who know that the husbands are not home.  Most are Algerian women, ‘city types’, which, to Yema, means that they don’t wear the veil, that they wear make-up or even smoke cigarettes.  In their sample cases, they carry striped fabrics and silver jewellery of the sort she had back in the village. Yema talks to them about all the things she left behind.  The women shake their heads sympathetically, and suggest that, maybe, if she were to buy a few beautiful things it might help her to ‘heal’.  At first, she politely refuses: she does not want to spend Ali’s money without his knowledge.  But one day, one of the women comes back and says:

‘I know that you’re not vain.  But when I got these, I immediately thought of you.  ‘These are very special jewels.  They come from Mecca.’

And so Yema goes into the bedroom and takes a few bills from the little nightstand.  After all, if they come from Mecca, they can’t be tacky.  She gives the woman half her husband’s salary for a cheap copper bracelet covered with a thin sheet of silver leaf that quickly flakes off, which leaves black and green marks on her wrists.  (p.199)

Hamid’s absence on this day is crucial to the con artist.  The boy shoulders responsibilities well beyond his years.  His mother never learns English; his father can only just get by.  So it is Hamid who reads the official letters, most just for his parents but also for others in the community.  There’s a poignant scene where Ali is summoned to the school because the teacher is indignant about him signing Hamid’s reports.

‘Yes,’ Ali says, nodding proudly.  ‘He does it all by himself.’
‘But he’s not supposed to!’ The teacher snaps.  ‘You’re supposed to sign them.’
Ali resolutely shakes his head: of course he is not supposed to.  He cannot write.  He is not about to sign his son’s neat, clean copybooks with an X.  His son is much more talented at tracing the beautiful, alien characters of French.
‘He signs them.  It’s fine.’  (p.219)

But when Hamid deliberately mistranslates for his father he is ashamed. There’s a note home about a school event he is embarrassed to have his parents attend, so he lies about its content to Ali.

It was too easy to lie to him.  Two phrases collide inside his head, moving at high speed:
He could be taken in by anybody.
He doesn’t know anything.
He considers running after him, telling him that he lied.  But what difference would it make?  Ali would not be able to check the contents of a letter by himself.  He is entirely dependent on his son.  Does his know this, Hamid wonders, is he conscious of this?  In his head, sympathy vies with disgust and contempt, and he realises, more forcibly than at any point in his life, that he is growing up too quickly. (p.208).

His father’s status as a big man in the village is gone, and Hamid does not share his parents’ pain when agrarian reforms mean that they have to sign away the title to their property back in the village.  In Paris as a young adult Hamid never tells anyone about his family or where they come from, not even his girlfriend, not for a long time.  (Mind you, there’s a droll segment contrasting the awkwardness of finally meeting first his parents, and then hers.)

Naïma, trying to draw the threads of her family’s story together, muses on the concept of ‘history’.

History is written by the victors, Naïma thinks as she drifts off to sleep.  This is an established fact, it is what makes it possible for history to exist in only one version.  But when the vanquished refuse to admit defeat, when, despite their defeat, they continue writing their own version of history right up to the last second, when the victors, for their part, write their history retrospectively to show the inevitability of their victory, then the contradictory versions on either side of the Mediterranean seem less like history than justifications or rationalisations sprinkled with dates and dressed up as history.  (p.394)

There is so, so much more to this brilliant novel, and I have barely scratched the surface.  If you want to know more, visit this review at Qantara, this one at The Observer or Stu’s at Winston’s Dad.

BTW I’ve read other books translated from the French by Frank Wynne: The Great Swindle, and All Human Wisdom both by Pierre Lemaitre, and also Public Enemies, by Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Lévy, co- translated with Miriam Rachel Frendo

Author: Alice Zeniter
Title: The Art of Losing (L’art de perdre)
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
Publisher: Picador, (Pan Macmillan) 2021, first published 2017
Cover image: Raymond Depardon, Magnum Photos
ISBN: 9781509884124, pbk., 469 pages
Source: Kingston Library

 


Responses

  1. To all those who understand French, I also recommend listening to the superb interview with Alice Zeniter on Arte Radio for Bookmakers.
    https://podcasts.google.com/feed/aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuYXJ0ZXJhZGlvLmNvbS94bWxfc291bmRfc2VyaWU_c2VyaWVuYW1lPSUyMkJvb2ttYWtlcnMlMjI/episode/aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuYXJ0ZXJhZGlvLmNvbS9zb24vNjE2NjM4MTkvYm9va21ha2Vyc19hbGljZV96ZW5pdGVyXzFfMw?ep=14

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    • I’m going to have to listen to it a few times to get more of the gist of it… I am not as good at listening to French as I am at reading it.

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  2. I have this on my bedside table. I’m not sure if I’ll read it yet. I did a library splurge on the Dublin Literary Award shortlist and I don’t think I’ll get to them all. I don’t want to read your review just in case I do read it but you have tempted me now when I scrolled through your review and saw you describe it as “brilliant”.

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    • Ah, *that’s* why I ordered it from the library, thank you! I knew it was on some shortlist but I couldn’t remember which one.
      It never ceases to amaze me how their judges manage to whittle down that unwieldy long list into a shortlist that is invariably excellent.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This does sound excellent, Lisa. I first came across the term “pied noir” when I read an Algerian novella last year called Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us. That, too, was about someone on the “wrong side” of the conflict.

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    • Yes, it’s a strange term, because it translates literally to ‘black foot’, which makes no sense because the people it refers to were not People of Colour.

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  4. The minute I see something is translated by Frank Wynne, I’m in. This sounds really good Lisa, thanks for the review.

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    • The only thing that puzzled me was a reference to The Famous Five as junior novels that Hamid read. Do French children read The Famous Five?

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  5. Another interesting sounding book about something I only know bits about. Loved your discussion of “the wrong side”. But this is a chunkster and they are not my favourite reading!

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  6. Great review! It makes me want to read the book. I believe I also watched a French film about Algerians in Paris but for the life of me I can’t remember the title right now.

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    • Thank you Vi:)
      You know, I think I saw that film too… on SBS?

      Liked by 1 person


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