Alice Zeniter’s new novel spans three generations across 70 years and two shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a tale of the inescapable legacies of colonialism that begins with a young Parisian career woman suffering from a brutal hangover. She groans, “I can’t do this,” overwhelmed with shame for her behavior the night before. The after-work binge drinking has been going on for a while. “I can’t do this” may explain how awful she feels the next day, but it also suggests Naïma can no longer live with the dissonance of her heritage. She is a French-born Algerian, and Ali, her grandfather, “turned the Mediterranean into a wall that none of his descendants has dared scale since he left.”
The Art of Losing is an epic family story. With allure and compassion, it plumbs the little-known and misunderstood history of French colonial rule in Algeria, taking us into the country’s northern Kabyle region. There, Naïma’s grandfather peacefully tends his lush olive groves. He’s a successful mountain man, a village leader, the family patriarch. In the early 1950s, his prosperity and joyful family life are threatened when national liberationists demand his family and the people of his village swear allegiance to independence – that, or face death. Ali acknowledges the danger at hand, and yet it’s not only from the revolutionaries. The French are responding with equal brutality. Ali, caught in a no-win situation, becomes a harki, an Algerian who cooperates with the French.
What Ali does not mention are the personal reasons prompting him to defy the FLN. Ali is thirty-seven now and is rankled by the youth of the rebel leaders whose names have begun to crop up, some in the newspapers, others only by word of mouth. He is also rankled by their lack of education. He thinks of them as a gang of angry young peasants and doesn’t see why he should be led by men who have done nothing to earn the ranks and titles they have awarded themselves.
Herein begins the great loss of the book’s title. Ali in his political error of judgment must save himself and his family by fleeing to safety in France when French President Charles de Gaulle abandons the fight to keep Algeria French. Ali loses his identity and dignity in transit camps and council housing. Hamid, Ali’s eldest son and Naïma’s father, reinvents himself, speaking French and discarding Islamic traditions. He marries a French girl and suppresses memories of the mountain life.
Now that Hamid has taken a scythe to the jungle in his mind, he would like to know how he wound up in Pont-Féron, what happened in the first part of the book that he has since forgotten except in his nightmares. And yet he dares not ask the questions buzzing inside his head: he is afraid of uncovering a past he cannot forgive.
The novel takes its title from “One Art,” an Elizabeth Bishop poem with a melancholy refrain attempting to convince the reader “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” But mastering the art of losing – accepting and adjusting, suppressing and concealing – doesn’t erase the ever-present tug of the legacy and the loss. Here author Alice Zeniter excels. With gripping reality, she explores the psychological toll of being neither entirely French nor Algerian. And with a sly wink, she brilliantly inserts a mysterious first-person voice that randomly pops in. It speaks with the perspective of a knowledgeable witness, detached and yet intimate. It never explains itself, a one-person Greek chorus commenting from behind the proscenium.
If I were writing Naïma’s story, it wouldn’t begin with Algeria. Naïma’s birth in Normandy. That’s where I would begin.
Naïma works in a Paris art gallery owned by a man who is her convenient, married lover. He’s interested in artwork produced in colonial countries during the years of decolonization “(violent or otherwise)” and sends her to Algeria to gather the artwork of a local artist. Her guides insist she visit her grandfather’s mountain village, and there she meets her grandfather’s brother, Hamza, and his extensive family. The experience somewhat settles the fragile dissonance that contributed to her drinking. The greatest impact comes from the artist’s nephew when he tells Naïma a truth she knows but needs to hear. He is driving her to the ferry in Algiers that will return her to Paris.
No one bequeathed Algeria to you. Do you really think that a country can be passed down through the bloodline? That the Kabyle language was buried somewhere in your chromosomes and it would come to life this moment you set foot in Algeria? … What is not passed on is lost, that’s all there is to it. You come from here, but this is not your home.
“The Art of Losing” by Alice Zeniter, translated from French by Frank Wynne, is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A version of this review was broadcast on central Ohio NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM.