People displaced by war, people in fear of political imprisonment, people fleeing as a result of colonialization, people are on the move. And they always have been. But it is a feature of our world because politicians and others try to contain them. As a result, many borders are dangerous places: fences, walls and the sea.
And to leave your country is to gain much, freedom, safety, new opportunities perhaps. But there is always loss, serious loss: language, familiar landscape, music and other cultural opportunities, clothes, family members, friends, dreams, hopes, dignity and more. These losses may be passed on through the generations.
It is not possible to know in advance whether the journey’s difficulties and the losses incurred will outweigh the dangers and costs of remaining. That’s why there is always a dilemma: stay or leave. There will be loss either way.
The Art of Losing is a long novel following one family, from Algeria, over three generations. From a traditional life on an olive farm, they are caught up in the. Was for independence, leave for France, where they have citizenship but little respect, and finally the third generation are making their lives in present day Paris.
The Art of Losing
The title of this novel is taken from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem One Art, quoted in large part at the end of the novel. With considerable sharpness Elizabeth Bishop claims that the art of losing ‘isn’t hard to master’.
This is a long novel, in three parts, one for each generation. It begins with Ali, who was decorated for fighting in the French army in the Second World War, and notably at the Battle of Monte Cassino.
But on his return to Algeria he finds that he must question his loyalty to the French colonial power, and face the dilemma of continued loyalty, and the threats of the growing power and violence of the FLN (National Liberation Front). His main concern is to father a son and then to keep his family safe. He must lose the livelihood the olive farm provided, and much more if he chooses to leave for France.
Ali chooses to become a harki, the derogatory term for an Algerian who supported France during the brutal war for Algerian Independence (1954 – 62). The harki were able to continue to claim French citizenship and expect help when they escaped to mainland France as the war ended.
The honouring of the harki was permeated by racism by the authorities and the areas where the harki were settled: first terrible refugee camps, later ghetto like cités, slums. Healthcare, education, all services were scant for many years. The focus in this central section is Hamid, Ali’s son, who finds himself defined by his family’s experiences in Algeria. The only way to make a life for himself, Hamid decides, is to escape the cité and leave his family. He visits Paris one summer and stays on with Clarissa, with whom he eventually has four daughters.
Naïma is the focus for the final section. Her uncle is critical of the women of her generation:
They claim they are going there to study. But just look at them: they’re wearing trousers, they’re smoking, drinking, behaving like whores. They’ve forgotten where they come from. (4)
Naïma is Ali’s granddaughter, and she does indeed behave like a modern young woman, but she realises that neither her grandfather, nor her own father have told her much about their history. Her ideas of ‘where she came from’ are confused for she has never been to Algeria. Her own mother is a white French woman and her grandmother only speaks her own dialect. The moment comes when Naïma must discover her own family’s history by visiting Algeria.
The journey is painful and full of discoveries and welcomes. Naïma discovers more about what her family has lost. But this does not lead to a resolution. The novel ends with this sentence:
At the moment when I chose to end this text, she has not arrived anywhere, she is movement, she is travelling. (469)
Alice Zeniter has shown us the dilemmas, turmoil and unresolved issues resulting from colonialism (in France, but also everywhere), which affected (and still effects) so many people in the world and she has given her readers understanding of these as human stories through Ali and his family. Sure, there are policy issues, historical economic, demographic problems to be resolved from movements of peoples, but above all the questions they pose are human, too often problems of human tragedy. No wonder the prestigious (and lucrative) International Dublin Literary Award was given to Alice Zeniter and her translator Frank Wynne this year. It’s a remarkable and superb book.
The Art of Losing by Alice Zeniter, first published in French in 2017. The English translation from the French by Frank Wynne was published by Picador in 2021. 472pp. Winner of the International Dublin Literary Award for 2022.
Other recommended winners of the International Dublin Literary Award:
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (2021)
Milkman by Anna Burns (2020)
The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker (2010)
Out Stealing Horses by Per Pettersen (2007)