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

Mining the Silence

Significantly, Ali and Yema cannot read, whereas Hamid is as good as an autodidact. (His school teachers are frequently patronizing or ineffectual.) Similarly, Naïma has to teach herself about Algeria and Algerian history, stating: ‘When you’re reduced to searching Wikipedia for information on the country you supposedly come from, maybe there is a problem.’ Thus, by appealing to visual and auditory stimuli (relatedly, Naïma later works in a Parisian art gallery), the narrator asserts the importance of unwritten stories.

Although Naïma struggles to piece together what her father must have lived, his remembrance of the past is just as fragmented as her own. For instance, whenever he thinks of Algeria, he pictures Algiers, even though he had only ever lived in the mountainous regions of Kabylia and had only seen Algiers aboard his ship to France.

For work, Naïma compiles a catalog for a Thomas Mailaender exhibition — a French multi-media artist. The gallery wants to exhibit his photographs of so-called ‘cathedral cars’. (The term was coined by Marseille dockers to describe vehicles with luggage strapped to their rooftops in gravity-defying fashions.) Mailaender has stated that ‘these rolling containers are an obvious embodiment of the concept of borders and cultural tensions that result from them.’ But Zeniter’s narrator queries the usefulness, or accuracy, of this pan-ethnic commentary by juxtaposing it with Naïma’s reconstruction of the past.

In 1962, Ali and his family escaped Algeria, traveling from Téfeschoun (modern-day Khemisti) to Algiers. However, Ali’s car contained neither suitcases nor furniture. In fact, it did ‘not even contain a whole family’ (they had to make separate car journeys). They had no luggage; their survival depended on having ‘nothing that would suggest that they [were] trying to leave Algeria.’

Michel Talata, a visual artist and Harki’s son, uses both art and textual narrative to investigate the legacies of colonialism. Like Zeniter, Talata uses children’s literature to explore the notion of passeurs and legatees. He wrote and illustrated Le Choix de L’Ogre: rue des harkis (The Ogre’s Choice: Harkis street), with François Benoit. Talata wrote the book in response to his own struggle as a father who does not know how to explain the family’s history to his son. His storybook is about a father and son watching as the (grand)father inaugurates a new street in the neighborhood in honor of the Harkis.

Yakob, the six-year-old, does not understand what is happening. His father enumerates distant lands, large, unfamiliar birds, kings and princes, and such metaphysical themes as death and anger, to explain it to him. But the underlying question remains: how can we tell stories about people who never wanted to tell their own? This question is also central to The Art of Losing.

Arguably, Mailaender’s approach reproduces le silence du père, whereas Zeniter and Talata deconstruct it. Zeniter has stated that she wanted to creuse (mine) the silence, but Mailaender seems to hold a mirror to it. So, in the end, for all her Google searches and history books, Naïma has to see Algeria for herself, as a 29-year-old, for it to ‘re-emerge from the silence that cloaked it more completely than the thickest fog.’

Thus, abundant literary allusions highlight the thin line between literature and history and emphasize the importance of oral histories — or oral histories made significant by their absence. In a sense, Zeniter seems to argue that the history of the Harkis can only be explained through the inadequate, approximate language of general culture. And yet the narrator also seems to say: why hasn’t this story been told before? And better?

Moreover, The Art of Losing is itself a perfectly rendered novel. Thus, Zeniter’s novel has a defiant quality: by writing in such a relatable fashion, and with recourse to so many well-known films, television series, and works of canonical literature, Zeniter reframes the question about the legitimacy of representation. In short, she seems to argue that it’s not about legitimacy so much as a willingness to write and read and listen. Language will always falter, but what better way to unearth buried stories than to write new stories about them?

The novel’s title draws inspiration from an Elizabeth Bishop poem, One Art, which contains the beautiful verse: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master;/ So many things seemed filled with the intent/ To be lost that their loss is no disaster/ I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster, some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent/ I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.’ This poem, like this novel, is about ambivalent but necessary acceptance. Bishop is also an interesting poet to have chosen given that, unlike her contemporary Mary McCarthy, or near-contemporary Anne Sexton, she was disinterested in confessional literature.

Bishop preferred a more expansive approach, or — to borrow Lorna Sage’s phrase — ‘the stranger shores of consciousness.’ Similarly, Zeniter’s narrator, although highly attuned to each character’s emotional complexities (Ali drinks too much, Hamid is given to bouts of hubris, and Naïma often feels as though ‘everyday life is a high-level discipline from which she has been disqualified’), she always steps back to see the bigger picture. To this end, this is an intensely moving, humanistic novel. It speaks ever so movingly about the idiosyncrasies of one family while still feeling universal.

The Art of Losing is a masterful and beautifully written novel, expertly translated by Frank Wynne (who won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2002 for Atomised, his translation of Michel Houellebecque’s Les Particules Élémentaires). Its success — it won Le Prix Goncourt des Lycéens in 2017 and has been translated into over half-a-dozen languages — suggests, yet again, that literature comes closer to honoring the past than state-sanctioned reports. As stated by Zeniter’s narrator: ‘fiction and research are equally necessary: they are all that remains to fill the silences handed on with the vignettes from one generation to the next.’ Arguably, there was too much-unfilled silence — or affirmative but misleading ‘noise’ — in Stora’s latest report.

Works Cited

Bancel, Nicolas. Blanchard, Pascal. Lemaire, Sandrine. ‘Racists Theme Parks for Europe’s Colonialists: Human Zoos, Le Monde Diplomatique. August 2000.

Bishop, Elizabeth. “One Art: Selected Letters”. Good As Her Word: Selected Journalism. eds. Sharon Sage and Victor Sage. Harpercollins. 2004.

Choi, Sung. ‘The Muslim Veteran in Postcolonial France: The Politics of the Integration of Harkis After 1962’. French Politics, Culture & Society. Vol 29, No 1. 2011. pp. 24-45.

Chrisafis, Angelique. “There is a thirst for writers of mixed heritage: what is France reading?” The Guardian. 23 November 2019.

Christlelow, Allan. Algerians Without Borders: The Making of a Global Frontier Society. University of Florida Press. 2012.

Crapanzano, Vincent. The Harkis: The Wound That Never Heals. The University of Chicago Press. 2011.

Enjelvin,Géraldine. Korac-Kakabadse, Nada. “France and the Memories of ‘Others’: The Case of the Harkis”. History and Memory. Vol.24, No 1. 2012. pp.152-177

Enjelvin, Géraldine. ‘Non pas ‘ L’Art de Perdre’ mais l’art pour ne pas perdre la mémoire harkie’. The Conversation. 22 January 2018.

Fette, Julie. “Apology and the Past in Contemporary France“. Culture & Society. Vol.26, No 2. 2008. pp. 78-113.

Harkis |

Holman, Rachel. “Sales of Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ surge after Paris attacks”. France24. 24 November 2015.

Kerchouche, Dalila. Mon Père, ce Harki. Editions du Seuil. 2003.

Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: Subversive Children’s Literature. Little, Brown and Company. 1990.

McCort, Jessica. “Getting Out of Wonderland: Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Adrienne Rich, and Anne Sexton”. Open Scholarship. Washington University in St. Louis. 2009.

Sabo, Oana. The Migrant Canon in Twenty-First Century France. University of Nebraska Press. 2018.

Shatz, Adam. “Dynamo Current, Feet, Fists, SaltThe London Review of Books. Vol 43. No 4. 18 February 2021.

Talata, Michel. Benoit, François. Le Choix de L’Ogre: Rue des Harkis. Somogy éditions. 2021.

Thorne, Stephen J. “Euphemisms, acronyms and outright lies: The language of war”. Legion Magazine. 19 June 2019.

Vizinczey, Stephen. Truth and Lies in Literature: Essays and Reviews. University of Chicago Press. 1988.

Willsher, Kim. “French president admits army was behind 1957 death of Ali Boumendjel during Battle of Algiers”. The Guardian. 3 March 2021.

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