Book Review: The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter
Prix Renaudot-winning author Alice Zeniter’s newest book to be translated into English ‘The Art of Losing’ (L’Art de Perdre), translated from the French by Frank Wynne, is a sweeping, intergenerational exploration of the ongoing tensions between Algeria and its former colonizer France.
‘The Art of Losing‘ is a literary phenomenon. It has won half a dozen of literary prizes, including the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, says Sophie Marie Niang for Bad Form Review.
…And people keep talking to me about this book [‘The Art of Losing’], many think it was my first: it can be daunting, and at the same time it’s fantastic, says Zeniter.
Though the book begins and ends centered on a modern-day woman named NaÏma, large swaths of the narrative follow her grandfather Ali and her father Hamid through their lives in mid-century Algeria to their tenuous assimilation as refugees in France.
The book is divided into three parts that roughly follow each generation of the family:
– first Ali’s pre-war Kabylian utopia (‘Papa’s Algeria’),
– then Hamid’s young adulthood as a refugee in peripheral France (‘Cold France’), and
– finally NaÏma’s less than triumphant return to the old country (‘A Moveable Feast’).
Inspired to learn more…
Like any good historical novel, ‘The Art of Losing‘ combined historic details and even publication of historical documents with vividly created characters. inspiring in me a desire to learn more about the Algerian War for Independence while also introducing me to the Kabyle culture, a Berber ethnic group that I was regrettably unfamiliar with prior to reading this book.
The publication of ‘The Art of Losing‘ in English comes at a time during which France appears to be reckoning with its complex history with Algeria, shown not only by diplomatic gestures from the French government, as described in a recent Economist article, but also by recent French media, such as the comedy television series ‘A Very Secret Service’ (Au service de la France). Zeniter’s novel is a needed contribution to the dialogue, offering a perspective on the immigrant experience and specifically of the plight of Harki’s and their descendants.
As defined by Encyclopédie Larousse and quoted within the novel, harki is defined as both a soldier who served in the Harka auxiliaries or as a family member or descendent of a harki (defined by Wikipedia as Algerians who served as auxiliaries to the French Army or at the very least who supported their colonial rule).
‘The Art of Losing‘ addresses how countless individuals who had no personal connection to the Algerian War faced prejudice from both the French and the Algerians—the choices of NaÏma’s grandfather mean that even two generations later, she is seen as an outsider to the French and as a traitor to the Algerians. For the Harkis themselves, they went from identifying as both Algerian and French to realizing that neither country wanted to claim them regardless of any current or past loyalties. They’re simply “unclassifiable” as Hamid’s wife later tells him.
The all-knowing narrator frequently slips in hints of the history that the characters will never know, providing the reader not only with a more complete picture of that period in time but also with more empathy for the characters in regard to decisions made under the guise of knowledge. Beyond the rich history she provides, Zeniter has a deft grasp on language that has been skillfully translated by Wynne. Chapters frequently begin with blocks of sensory text that paint the setting, taking the black-and-white of history and transmuting it into the vivid colors of present time:
The rock face of the gorge rises vertically and cascades down as scree…[the river] is verdant with festoons of greenery and mossy cushions. Delicate early poppies spatter the slopes blood-red with their petals. Fishes and eels glide, flashing silver in the current… In the early twentieth century, the gorges to the north of Palestro attracted many tourists and contributed to the development of the town: inns and cafés flourished, catering to hikers who wore soft leather boots and pastel hats…
Why should you read it?
As a whole, ‘The Art of Losing‘ is a masterful saga that provides a window into one fictional family’s experiences of the Algerian War and its aftermath.
At 431 pages, it’s on the longer side, yet every time I picked it up, I found myself immediately immersed in the world that Zeniter built—a perfect read for lovers of family narratives or for anyone looking to learn more about the multiculturalism of modern-day France. Published by Macmillan Publishers.
Have you read any of Alice Zeniter’s books, especially ‘The Art of Losing‘? Please share with us in the comments below or on Twitter at @MaVieFrancaise
1. Read about Alice Zeniter’s other awards and other award-winning French literature. A French literary Season by Michael Pasquier.
2. Interview with Alice Zeniter by Sophie Marie Niang of Bad Form Review