Earlier this year, while translator Frank Wynne was hard at work chairing the panel of judges for the International Booker Prize, there was news of another of his achievements. Over in Dublin, the International Dublin Literary Award for 2022 was bestowed upon French writer Alice Zeniter (and a certain translator) for her novel The Art of Losing. I have to admit that it’s a book that flew under my radar on its release, but I decided I’d make up for lost time and give it a try – and what better occasion for that than Women in Translation Month? Make yourself comfortable, then, as we head off on a lengthy journey lasting three generations, even if it eventually leaves us back where we started…
The Art of Losing is an impressive novel chronicling the experiences of three generations of a family, from their roots in Algeria to their migration to France and the life they develop there. The book is enjoyable and well-paced, taking the reader along on a fascinating journey, showing how the various events described are felt by different generations.
After a brief prologue, the novel is divided into three distinct parts. ‘Papa’s Algeria‘ provides us with a brief history lesson, before focusing on Ali, a young man growing up against the backdrop of war in Europe and unrest in his homeland. At the height of his success, he finds himself unable to enjoy his life because of the growing independence movement, and in his house in a mountain village, he weighs up two options, knowing that neither can bring total peace. In the end, his choice costs him his past, sending him into an uncertain future.
‘Cold France’ then moves the story on to Europe and describes the family’s experiences as migrants. This time Ali’s son Hamid, born in Algeria but raised in France, is at the centre of the story, and we see the happy-go-lucky child of the first part grow into a troublesome teenager and an angry young man. Zeniter portrays the fraught relationship Hamid has with his father, and his desire to spread his wings and leave his family burdens behind.
In the final section, ‘A Moveable Feast’, it’s Hamid’s daughter, Naïma, who takes to the stage. She’s French, but not enough in some people’s eyes, and she’s also an Algerian who has never seen her ‘home’. As it turns out, this is an itch she needs to scratch, and thanks to her work, an opportunity to do so arises – so why is she so unsure about making the journey?
As you’d expect, in many places The Art of Losing is a story of (de)colonisation. Ali’s ties to France because of his military record produce a crisis of identity, and in the background, Zeniter, via her mysterious unnamed narrator, drip-feeds us historical details, such as the atrocities committed by both sides during the uprising. When we move on to France, there are problems of a different kind, shown through scenes of the harsh life in the camps:
The camp is a makeshift city, hastily erected over the ruins of the previous one. Hardly have the new barracks been built than they are inadequate. Every day – or rather every night, since the shipments are done in secret – the camp grows still bigger, fed by the continual flow of covered trucks arriving straight from Marseilles, or coming from the Larzac camp, where numbers are being reduced to avoid a humanitarian disaster.
p.151 (Picador, 2021)
And that’s not mentioning what happens in Paris when the twenty-first century rolls around…
The theme of identity is a crucial one, with many of the characters struggling to reconcile two worlds in one mind. The many Algerians in Paris bemoan the world they see around them, yet they never seem ready to try to return, whether through fear and inertia, or for more practical reasons. This is also the case for the main characters of the novel, each struggling in their own way with their split identity (Ali’s withdrawal, Hamid’s youthful seething rage, Naïma’s reluctance to engage with the issue). In truth, this identity is not easy to define:
“You know what you are? You’re unclassifiable…”
Hamid pulls a face and throws up his hands: there is nothing he can do. Clarisse is not the first person to have to deal with the absence of a label that fits him. Perhaps it is this very absence that led to the years of silence – when you are missing the main noun, how do you build a story? (p.309)
Luckily, the writer is up to the task, and it’s all wonderfully done, with Zeniter and Wynne producing one of those books you could just spend the whole day on, turning page after page. There are a number of powerful scenes, such as the tense night-time visit of the freedom fighters to Ali’s mountain village, Hamid wandering the streets of Paris, drunk with joy, and Naïma on the ship, waiting for her first glimpse of Algeria. These are the pivotal moments around which the book is formed.
Works like this, chronicling event after event in a family saga, can become a little dull after a while, but Zeniter manages to keep it interesting throughout, with very few lulls in the plot. This is partly due to the way the characters are drawn, but there’s also some nice writing, including plenty of quotable morsels:
When the newcomers become restless inside this great belly, the History of France pays them no more attention than might a man who hears his stomach rumbling. He knows that digestion can be a slow process. The History of France marches shoulder to shoulder with the Army of France. They move as one. History is Don Quixote, with his dreams of greatness; the army is Sancho Panza, trotting alongside him, taking care of the dirty work. (p.12)
It’s the little passages like these, interspersed with more serious accounts of events, that prevent the story from ever becoming flat.
Like all good stories, The Art of Losing hangs around just long enough to make us sad to finish it, but not long enough to make us want to kick it out. It was surprisingly overlooked for the IBP (it would have been eligible for the 2021 prize, and I can think of a quite a few books I would gladly have thrown out to make room for it on the longlist…), so I’m happy it was eventually recognised elsewhere. In the end, it’s a beautiful story of a family and their search for an identity somewhere between two countries. As you’d expect, they’re not always successful in their quest, but overall Zeniter’s novel is a story of people managing to find their own happy ending.