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

A Future in a Foreign Language

The final part of the novel: ‘A Moveable Feast’, is a nod to Hemingway’s titular memoir. Published posthumously in 1964, it recounts the experiences of a struggling ‘expat’ in Paris, collecting new places and people like so many souvenirs. The memoir’s narrative echoes Naïma’s discoveries on her journey to Algeria: its artists and writers, Algiers, and her family’s ancestral village. Notably, the French-language edition of A Moveable Feast, titled Paris est une fête, experienced a considerable revival after the 13th of November, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris. Selling out in book shops across France, some copies were found in makeshift memorials.

Zeniter’s choice of epigraphs provides a further commentary on language. Here, quotes from the poet Guillaume Appollinaire, or the sociologists Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayad, sit alongside Charles de Gaulle and Jean-Marie Le Pen to show how racist propositions engender historical misinformation. In part one, de Gaulle’s well-known 1959 statement: ‘Papa’s Algeria is dead,’ is used as both an epigraph and a title. However, by bringing Papa’s Algeria to life through the long, demanding process of historical research and fictional reconstitution, Zeniter defies the phrase’s paternalistic implications. She ensures that ‘Papa’s Algeria’ exists in the reader’s imagination, if not in geopolitical reality.

The narrator further observes the tension between history and fiction by looking at the origin story of the French invasion of Algeria, in which the Dey of Algiers was rumored to have struck the French Consul with a fan or fly-whisk in the summer of 1830. Although often cited as the catalyst for the invasion, this legend rests upon a faulty premise: there was no Algeria as it is known today. The invasion was, in fact, ‘a war against several Algerias: […] the Regency of Algiers ruled by the Emir Abd al-Kader, then Kabylia, and, half a century later, the Sahara.’ By casting doubt on the offending object (fan or fly-whisk), Zeniter’s narrator cautions against narrativization of historical events, but not without a degree of irony — after all, The Art of Losing is itself a work of historical fiction.

In turn, manifold references to children’s books and comics like Mandrake the Magician, Tarzan, or Tintin in the Congo highlight the perpetuity of the colonial experience by emphasizing the idea of lineage. However, they also serve to deconstruct the genealogy of colonialism by stressing intergenerational discontinuities. Notably, Hamid’s comics allow him to learn the French language but also facilitate his disassociation from his parents. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, like orphaned superheroes, present adults, not children, as foolish and uninstructed. This is interesting to consider vis-à-vis the tensions between Hamid and his father.

With his friends, Hamid likes to read comics that foster the notion of group identity. Yet Ali’s silence, like that of many Harkis, disbarred the possibility of a communitarian ethos. Thus, Zeniter’s narrator allows the reader to draw connections between Hamid’s juvenile reading matter and the texts he chooses later. For example, influenced by his reading of Marx’s Das Kapital, Hamid begins to feel contempt for his father for not having been a revolutionary fighter during the Algerian War.

As such, a line can be traced between Hamid’s immersion in subversive children’s literature and his subsequent attraction to social criticism. In both cases, reading in general, and the French language in particular, allow Hamid to develop a distinct identity while also conferring an identity upon his father. Thus, it can be argued that Hamid has internalized the language of rebellion and revolution — a language that leaves little room for a sympathetic portrait of his father.

Children’s fiction, including pictorial dictionaries and atlases, is also used to identify discrepancies between official histories and lived experiences. For instance, Hamid’s dictionary, published in the 1950s, has no Algerian flag between Albania and Andorra. Algeria’s invisibility is touched upon again when, much later, Hamid tells Naïma that, at school, he had a map of the world pinned onto his bedroom wall. One day, he came home to find that Algeria had been burned off the map with the lighted end of a cigarette. Hamid assumed that his father must have done it.

The disconnect between parents and their children is one of the central themes of the second part of the novel, prefaced by Pierre Bourdieu’s oft-repeated statement: ‘Every family is the site of a clash of civilizations.’ Ostensibly, many families are also a site of gender inequality. For instance, when Hamid and Kader become de facto secretaries, lawyers, accountants, and letter-writers for adults who cannot read, their sister Dalila, while ‘older and more intelligent than Kader’, is sent to a separate room. Thus, ‘despite the consistent excellence of her school reports, she finds herself beating her head against the invisible barriers imposed upon the world of women.’

In a scene at Hamid’s school, the narrator looks again at the disconnect between parents and their children. The teacher tells Ali that Hamid is a brilliant student and asks him: ‘Have you given any thought to his future?’ Ali thinks: ‘What does this teacher think he is? Of course, he thinks about his son’s future. He thinks about it every day at the steel press in the factory, in the employee’s locker room, at lunchtime, on the bus, before he falls asleep, all the time.’ But he also knows that ‘he has no control over the future of his son, of his children, and it upsets him. He knows that, in spite of all his efforts, their future is beyond him.’ He knows that: ‘their future is written in a foreign language.’

As the children grow older, they speak less often to their parents because ‘language is gradually creating a gulf between them.’ Between the Arabic that ‘is fading with time and the French that resists their parents, there is no space in their conversations for the adults they are becoming.’ Interestingly, Hamid’s language-learning process is also described in aggressive, colonial terms: ‘the dots and loops’ of French letters resemble ‘an army on the march, about to invade this brain.’

The language barrier erected between parents and their children is recounted in another moving scene. This time the family is about to move from temporary housing to a new home in Flers, Normandy. A supervisor jots down ‘Flers’ on a piece of paper, but no one had heard of it before. However, one of the men recognizes the letter ‘s’ as the same letter as is at the end of ‘Paris.’ The adults, who cannot read, are reassured by this: they feel as though they are ‘headed for a miniature Paris,’ believing the ‘s’ at the end of the word signifies ‘stylishness and progress’. Hamid is more skeptical. From leafing through his comics, he has come to realize that letters in French have no intrinsic meaning; they ‘recur in ways that seem random, complicated [and] absurd.’

The narrator deploys childhood imagery: dolls, puppets, ogres, superheroes, and big-headed, green-bodied aliens to explain the horrors Hamid and his siblings have either witnessed or endured. When Hamid and his cousin witness the murder of an old village woman, Fatima, they see her ‘body crumple like a sagging doll cut down while singing her old refrain.’

Similarly, when French soldiers tie the corpse of an FLN lieutenant, known as The Wolf of Rabbat, to a post, the narrator compares him to ‘a pitiful puppet, [like] an Algerian warrior in a bad Punch and Judy show.’ This imagery captures a child’s experience of normalized violence and nuances the overtly masculine, militaristic image of the Harkis. The narrator adds: ‘They are children, nothing has ever happened to them — even four years of war have gone straight over their heads like airplanes flying so high that the passengers can’t see them.’

When Naïma goes back to see where her father was detained, she is stunned to discover that there’s almost nothing left to see. In the absence of an adequate language of memorialization, she refers to The Lord of the Rings as a means to describe what she sees: ‘the cliffs of Canteperdrix, flanked by two porticos that rise in a series pale stone vaulted arches, as beautiful and strange as a set abandoned by Peter Jackson when he finished filming.’

Here, it’s important to remember that until September 2001, there was no public recognition or memorialization of the Harkis. Thus, their lieu de mémoire (memory site) was entirely internalized. (Adam Shatz recently discussed the toll of this internalization in his brilliant article for The London Review of Books.)

Furthermore, references to blockbuster movies like Lord of the Rings caution against the attractiveness of simple narratives by emphasising the homogenizing effect of mass culture. Interestingly, franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings figure prominently in recent discussions on the motif of colonization in popular fantasy and science-fiction. Mass-culture references are also used to explain that, in the absence of the possibility of understanding a personal, familial history, fiction serves to ‘fill the gaps.’