York European - book review

The art of losing

Art of Losing” (L’art de perdre), Alice Zeniter

story of Naïma, a young French-Algerian

In the “Art of Losing” (L’art de perdre), Alice Zeniter recounts the story of Naïma, a young French-Algerian, who uncovers her family history in Algeria, her family’s secrets and losses from the struggle for Algerian independence to her life in modern day Paris. ………………………………..

In the “Art of Losing”, Alice Zeniter plunges us into a family saga with its roots in French Algeria from the 1930s to present day Paris.

It starts with Ali, the grandfather, forced by events in Algeria to become a “harki” (an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence) to Naïma, his grand-daughter in Paris, who defiantly returns to Algeria to explore her history, which her family has consigned to silence.

The novel takes us beyond the family events to a picture of the Algerian people torn apart by the issue of independence from France. It details the hidden history of the “harkis”, how they were abandoned by France after Algerian independence; how, once safely in France and out of Algeria where they faced deadly retribution from the new Algerian regime, they were ghettoised by the French authorities who preferred to pretend they did not exist.

Naïma’s quest is one of identity; like many of her generation, she has no links to her older relatives’ country of birth and is often regarded as a foreigner in France, the country of her birth. The events may be turbulent, sometimes violent, but this is not a gloomy book. It is easy to immerse yourself into Naïma’s family with the lively portrayal of character against the descriptions of the Algerian countryside. The book takes you into the mountains of Kabylie, the chaotic camps for the Algerians “repatriated” (official misnomer) from Algeria to France, their tower-block ghettos in Normandy and the art world of Paris.

Spanning three generations across 70 years, The Art of Losing tells the story of how people carry on in the face of loss: the loss of a country, of an identity, of a family history. It is a story of colonisation and immigration and how things we have lost or left behind remain within us.

In 2017 “L’art de perdre” won the literary prizes Goncourt des lycéens and the Prix Littéraire Du Monde