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

Harkis of the Hinge Generation

Zeniter, like Kerchouche, seeks to unearth a too-quickly buried past. When asked why she wanted to write the novel, she responded, ‘I wanted to fill in the silences’ (The Guardian, 2019). She has expressed her wariness about national fictions, and to this end, her crystalline prose and poignant metaphors highlight her impatience with cloudy, careless language. In one powerful section, the narrator reproduces chunks of ‘The Agreements Relating to Algerian Independence’: a document signed by Charles de Gaulle at Évian, France, on the 18th of March, 1962.

The infamously vague, unpossessing language of this official document is glaring against Zeniter’s bright, clean prose. For example, one article states: ‘In order to assure the Algerian of French status the protection of their person and property and their normal participation in Algerian life, the following measures are provided for: they will have a just and genuine part in public affairs.’ However, as Naïma reflects, ‘just’ and ‘genuine’ are senseless adjectives in a document that otherwise fails to stipulate concrete legislation for their protection. From a narratological standpoint, these paragraphs serve an important purpose: they slow down the narrative’s pace, allowing a pause for thought in an otherwise rapid, ‘easy’ read.

In one tragic scene, set in 1957, Ali discovers the naked, mutilated corpse of Akli — a veteran of the First World War — with his military medal hanging from his mouth ‘like the tongue of a grotesque puppet.’ The letters FLN are carved on his chest and spelled in blood on the nearby wall. Next to the man’s body, a sign reads: ALL THE DOGS WHO HAVE SOLD OUT TO THE FRENCH WILL SUFFER THE SAME FATE. This references one of the FLN’s preferred means of torture, ‘The Kabyle Smile’: slitting a person’s throat and pulling out their tongue. This scene serves as a chilling reminder of the dangers inherent in interpreting political indeterminacy as agency: ‘to stand aloof from the struggle is a crime’ (First Proclamation by The Front de Libération Nationale, the 1st of November 1954).

Having arrived in France, the family are detained at The Camp of Rivesaltes (also known as The Camp Maréchal Joffre): one of several ‘transit’ camps in southern France. As of 2015, Rivesaltes became a memorial ground and museum. The site was built as a military camp in 1938 and was first used to intern refugees from the Spanish Civil War. Zeniter’s narrator alludes to this history by describing it as ‘a pen filled with ghosts.’

In Rivesaltes, Harkis and their families were made to live in tents in extremely punitive and unsanitary conditions. Zeniter’s narrator refers to ‘the mass distribution of tranquilizers’ as ‘a fast and effective response to the angry outbreaks that flare-up in the walkways,’ adding: ‘when drugs prove insufficient, they are reinforced by a stay in a psychiatric hospital.’ Hamid becomes accustomed to seeing medics’ lead out strange creatures with vacant eyes, drooping faces, and bandaged heads that look (vaguely, only vaguely) like men.’

After Rivesaltes, Ali, Yema, and the children are relocated to the Logis D’Anne, ‘temporary,’ barrack-like accommodation in rural France (although this one stayed open until 1988). Like many Harkis, Ali works for the National Forestry Office in a physically demanding and isolating job: ‘The house and the job come together: Siamese twins. No one asked them to fashion or to dream what their life in France might be. They will live among the trees; they will work among the trees.’

Harkis and their children who spent part of their lives in camps or forestry villages are known as les harkis de génération charnière (Harkis of the hinge generation), an expression attributed to General Abd-El-Aziz Meliani in 1993. Forestry villages followed the same principle as barbed-wired detention camps: social exclusion. In The Art of Losing, as in life, these exclusionary practices are repeated when, later, Ali and his family are moved from their forestry village to a housing estate (cité) on the outskirts of Flers, Normandy. The scholar Géraldine Enjelvin records 42 such housing estates purposely designed to keep Harkis and their families on the edge of town and removed from cultural centers.

When Yema tries to resettle in Flers, the handful of objects she has brought from Algeria seem absurd amidst the Formica furniture, the wallpaper, and the pale-yellow linoleum of her rent-controlled apartment. Torn from their proper setting, these items take on the aspect of museum artifacts. Zeniter’s narrator refers to The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, where Indian and African artifacts come with explanatory notes. These notes, although intended to ‘bring viewers closer to the object, keep them at a distance by marking it out as a curiosity, something that, rightly, needs to be explained.’ This metaphor illustrates Zeniter’s argument that new realities necessitate a new, adequately nuanced vocabulary. However, the term Harkis does just the opposite; it fails to meet the social or emotional needs of the people it claims to represent.

Notably, the narrator’s description of the housing estate in Flers recalls the arbitrariness of colonial boundaries. It is ‘a landscape made up of harsh, geometric lines marked out with a ruler.’ This emphasizes that here, as elsewhere, the built environment is maladapted to human psychosocial needs. For example, when the children play in the recreation area, the climbing frames pull off the ground because they are poorly fitted. And, after heavy rainfall (a near-constant in Normandy), ‘the cité quickly comes to resemble a mud-hut village precariously built on marshy ground.’

It’s also pertinent to compare the housing estate in Flers with the narrator’s earlier description of the camp as ‘a makeshift city hastily erected over the previous one’s ruins.’ The narrator explains that Flers now boasts the largest Leclerc hypermarket in France — a detail that evokes all the sadness of urban sprawl.

As Zeniter explained in a 2017 interview for Entrée Libre, she often found herself jotting down ideas for her characters in the margins of history books. Thus, the author was literally writing in the margins about the marginalisation of the Harkis.

The Art of Losing is also a highly self-reflexive novel in constant dialogue with other works of fiction. The French army is compared to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and ‘his dreams of greatness’, whereas multiple references to the Odyssey and the Aeneid posit the idea that, unlike Ulysses and other heroes, Harkis and their families never made it home: ‘I can’t remember how the Aeneid begins [but] at the end of his painful wandering, Aeneas arrives back in Latium, where his descendants will found Rome.’