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Review: THE ART OF LOSING, Alice Zeniter

Translated from French by Frank Wynne (Picador Books, 2021)

Alice Zeniter’s multi-generational narrative The Art of Losing deals with the troubled legacy of the Algerian War of Independence, focusing on one family’s difficulties in coming to terms with the unnamed experience and unresolved traumas that are handed down through generations. Multiple historians have noted that this is an impossible-to-summarise period, and so there is a certain amount of necessary generalisation in the interests of maintaining momentum in plot and narration; this is, however, deftly executed, such as in this section from the opening pages: “The plural history of Algeria does not have the heft of the Official History, the one that unites. And so, French writers pen books that absorb Algeria and its histories, transforming them into a few brief pages in their histories … a history in which progress is made flesh, takes shape and shines forth.”

The Art of Losing sweeps through colonised rural Algeria, French immigrant camps, and contemporary Paris, its protagonists dislocated from every “home” they try to inhabit. The narrative opens in the present day: Naïma works in a Parisian art gallery, and carries an unspoken family legacy that gnaws away at her, and which she longs to understand. To do this, she has to go back to her origins, and this is where the flashback that makes up most of the novel begins. Naïma’s grandfather, Ali, owns an olive grove in Algeria. He fought for France in the Second World War, frequents a veteran’s club, and has a successful life until the arrival of FLN (National Liberation Front) in the village turns their lives upside down. Uncertain about the promises of the FLN, Ali prefers to observe from the sidelines, but his inaction rapidly marks him out as an enemy, until he is left with no choice but to protect himself by becoming one.

Under threat in Algeria for real or perceived collaborations with the colonisers, Ali must escape with his family on a boat to France, where he is promised he will be looked after. Once there, “France” amounts to a resettlement camp, cold and inhuman, offering no possibility of integration into the country that is supposed to be their home, because “for these people to forget an entire country, they would have had to be offered a new one. But the doors of France were not thrown open to them, only the gates of a camp.” Declared an enemy of the homeland they will never see again, Ali and his family are emotionally anchored to Algeria and administratively adrift in France: even when they leave the resettlement camp and have a home of their own, their world is restricted to the apartment, the factory where Ali works, and the supermarket. France is for them a France of the periphery, a France of utility, a “trap in which he [Ali] has lost himself”.

In the next generation, the focus is on Ali’s son Hamid, forced to grow up too soon, and to help his parents navigate life in France. Language creates a gulf between the generations, Hamid rejecting his native Arabic as he associates it with the family’s inability to integrate. As Hamid grows further away from his parents, so the gulf between his past and present increases, until his memories become “twisted shards … refashioned by years of silence.” Aware that neither the Algeria of his childhood nor the France of settlement camps and “relocations” represent any kind of promised land, Hamid carves out his own path and rejects his heritage, not passing on his language to his children. This leaves his daughter Naïma unable to communicate with her grandmother; reluctantly, she decides to rebuild the stories of her family’s past, fearing that the absence might turn out to be more comfortable than what she might uncover. Naïma embarks on a return to her origins that she hopes will reassemble the shards of memory and legacy passed down to her, and fill the silences that she has inherited: “between these slivers – like caulk, like plaster oozing between the cracks … there is Naïma’s research, begun sixty years after they have left Algeria.”

As you can probably tell from the extracts I’ve included here, Frank Wynne’s translation is excellent: there is a lot of drama in this novel, and it could easily have turned to melodrama with overly literal translation. Wynne’s attention to understatement is admirable (“Ali dreams of all the things his son might be. Suddenly, a white-hot blast filled with shards of glass sends him sprawling”); the dialogues flow smoothly and believably, and the descriptions are lavish but never over-the-top. There are comic backhanders (“This union brings him two daughters – a terrible disappointment, the family mutters by the bedside of the mother, who promptly dies of shame”) and many examples of impeccable lexical choices (“It is like the shriek of nails on a blackboard”, “They use words that wound and seethe”, “war cleaves [the family] like a ploughshare splitting a mound of earth, scattering it in little divots of farewell”).

There’s only one thing I didn’t much like in The Art of Losing: the title. It comes, of course, from the poem by Elizabeth Bishop; it certainly is appropriate to the subject matter, but the moment when the poem itself makes its appearance felt a little contrived. Overall, though, The Art of Losing represents an important contribution to the legacy of the Algerian war, a meditation on a cultural divide that persists today, and an embodiment of the claim within its own pages that fiction and research are equally necessary to shed light on this, because “they are all that remains to fill the silences handed on with the vignettes from one generation to the next.”

Review copy of The Art of Losing provided by Picador Books

Helen Vassallo

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