Image by Pawel Grzegorz from Pixabay
Image by Pawel Grzegorz from Pixabay

Writing in the Margins: Prize-Winning French Novelist Alice Zeniter on the Legacies of French Colonialism

Alice Zeniter’s excellent novel, The Art of Losing, tells the story of an Algerian Harkis family and the reaching effects of French Colonialism.

The Art of Losing
Alice Zeniter
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
March 2021
Tomorrow They Won’t Dare to Murder Us
Joseph Andras
February 2021
Le Choix de L’Ogre: Rue des Harkis
Michel Talata and Francois Benoit
Somogy Editions

In January 2021, the French historian Benjamin Stora polarized opinion when he presented his latest report, ‘The Memory of Colonialism and the Algerian War,’ to the Élysée Palace in Paris. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, commissioned the report ahead of the war’s 60th anniversary in 2022. However, politicians and writers on both sides of the Mediterranean have criticized Stora for the ‘minimalism’ of his report, citing the invisibility of Harkis, conscientious objectors, and Algerian Jews as part of several unacceptable omissions. Furthermore, Macron issued an apology in February for Ali Boumendjel. An Algerian lawyer and activist, Boumendjel was tortured to death by French soldiers in 1957. Until now, his death was misreported as suicide.

Notably, Stora’s report and Macron’s apology coincide with two recent English translations of French novels on Algerian history: The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, translated by Frank Wynne, and Tomorrow They Won’t Dare Murder Us by Joseph Andras, translated by Simon Leser. Zeniter, born in 1986, is a French novelist, translator, scriptwriter, and director. In this novel (her fourth), she examines the history of the Harkis: a generic term referring to Algerian paramilitaries who fought alongside the French army during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62). Often seen as traitors, Harkis and their families have been systematically misrepresented and mistreated.

As noted by Zeniter’s narrator, their ‘twofold histories’ conferred upon them ‘a paradoxical status.’ As a result, ‘none of the nations that might have offered them one’ were ‘prepared to take them in.’ Algeria spoke of them as ‘rats’ ‘traitors’ ‘infidels’ and ‘bandits’, whereas France did ‘not speak of them at all.’ Today, Harkis continue to be either publicly condemned, or punishingly ignored, in France, Algeria, and the wider Algerian diaspora. The Algerian War, defined by guerilla warfare and the extensive use of torture on both sides, also devolved into a horrific civil war.

France spent decades using such euphemisms as ‘events’ and ‘conflict’ to describe one of the most brutal decolonization wars on record. Indeed, it was often called la guerre sans nom (the war without a name). It was finally called a war on the 5th of October 1999. And, in 2017, Macron recognised France’s actions in Algeria as ‘a crime against humanity.’ Significantly, there is still no friendship treaty between both countries.

The Art of Losing is divided into three parts: ‘Papa’s Algeria’, ‘Cold France’, and ‘A Moveable Feast’, respectively focused on three generations of one family: Ali, Hamid, and Naïma. The story unfolds over 70 years, starting with Ali in Kabylia and ending with his granddaughter Naïma, a young woman living in modern-day Paris. The Art of Losing follows a rapidly developing tradition of 21st-century novels and memoirs about the Harkis. In 2003, The Year of Algeria in France, or Djazaïr 2003, four Harki’s daughters: Hadjila Kemoum, Zahia Rahmani, Dalila Kerchouche, and Fatima Besnaci-Lancou, published their autobiographies.

Their goals were similar: to articulate their fathers’ untold stories. Harkis seldom discussed their history amongst themselves or their families. Le silence du père (the silence of the father) is a well-documented phenomenon. Kerchouche, who was born in one of many Harkis detention camps in France, deploys the term quête (quest) harkéoligique — in a play on the words Harkis and archeology — to excise the notion of buried history. In Mon père, ce Harki (2003) Kerchouche wrote:

‘I am a harki’s daughter. I write this word with a lowercase ‘h,’ as in honte [shame]. During the Algerian War, my father, an Algerian, fought with the French army against the FLN, the national liberation front of the country. How could he support colonization against independence, prefer submission to freedom? I don’t understand,

to highlight negative prejudices that continue to haunt the Harkis. Kerchouche was also one of many writers to take issue with Stora’s recent report, telling Le Monde newspaper: ‘For me, this report hasn’t forgotten the harkis, it’s buried them.’

Kerchouche has previously explained that Macron’s government cannot ‘turn a new leaf’ on ‘a page of history it hasn’t read.’ She has called for an independent commission modeled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee (a court-like restorative justice body assembled at the end of apartheid). It is right to remember that France’s use of torture was extensive throughout its 132-year colonization of Algeria. Yet, France’s acts of torture — including Macron’s recent apologies — are still subsumed under the rhetoric of war, implying that extraordinary circumstances require extraordinary measures. As previously argued by Nicolas Bancel, Pascale Blanchard, and Sandrine Lemaire: ‘Torture in Algeria was engraved in the colonial act; it is a ‘normal’ illustration of an abnormal system.’

In 2003, the then President of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, stated: ‘The time has not yet come for harkis to visit [Algeria,] it is exactly like asking a Frenchman from the Resistance to shake hands with a collaborator.’ Zeniter, herself the granddaughter of a Harki who came to France in 1962, uses this quote as an epigraph. Comparisons to Vichy collaborators are often used to incite hatred against the Harkis, but the conflation of these separate histories is emphatically misleading. The only reasonable comparison between the Algerian War and France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany is their mutual definition as a parenthesis in history — a vacuum — allowing France to renounce responsibility for its crimes. Indeed, it’s interesting to consider the use of ellipses in Zeniter’s novel in relation to historical events, like these, that have become parenthesized or footnoted in official histories.

For instance, in response to the question: ‘How is a country born?’, the narrator relates a Kabylian tradition wherein a woman can give birth to a child even though the father has been absent for several years: the baby is asleep in their mother’s womb. Zeniter’s narrator argues that: ‘Algeria is like that sleeping child’ and that it was conceived ‘so long ago that no one can agree on a date, and for years it slept, until the spring of 1962.’ This analogy is also applicable to France’s slow and uncertain reckoning with its colonial past. Other ellipses include Ali’s involvement in the Second World War (only ever referred to as ‘the war’) and the boat crossing from Algiers to Marseille. As such, ellipses are one of several ways Zeniter leans on structural devices to echo the silence of the Harkis or the inadequacies of memory (and official memorialisation).

One of many problems with the term Harkis is that it suggests intentionality, but as shown in The Art of Losing: ‘Choosing one’s camp is not the result of a single moment, a solitary, specific decision.’ As stated by the historian Sung Choi, ‘the reasons an Algerian would have chosen the path of a harki were often overdetermined and complex.’ While the French army coerced some Algerian Harkis, others were driven by their contempt for FLN (National Liberation Front) fighters who had threatened and harassed their families.

Other Harkis, as Kerchouche has explained, were driven by their loyalty to France. Furthermore, just as Harkis do not form a homogenous group, nor do members of the FLN. As shown by Zeniter’s narrator, not all FLN fighters were ideologically committed revolutionaries. Algerians who began to fight alongside the FLN in March 1962, or the 11th hour (known as Marsiens), are one such example.

As Naïma discovers, Algeria is the tenth-largest country in the world and the largest country in Africa and the Arab world. Eighty percent of Algeria’s surface area is taken up by the Sahara. Until 1957, France referred to the Sahara as ‘les Territoires du Sud‘: a phrase the narrator dismisses as both ‘mysterious and banal’, and Algeria itself was not considered a colony so much as a trio of French départements.

François Mitterand’s phrase given in a speech on the 12th November 1954, ‘there is but one law and that law is the law of France’, emphasizes these imperialist assumptions as does the narrator’s reference to the popular belief — taught to children in French schools — that the Mediterranean separates Algeria and France as Paris is divided by the Seine. During the war, ‘French government ministers had repeatedly insisted [that] Algeria is France.’ Although, to many Algerians, including Ali and his wife Yema, the phrase tended to mean the reverse: ‘France is Algeria, or at least an extension of Algeria.’