During the Algerian War of Independence from 1954 to 1962, some Algerians, called Harkis, sided with France. After the war some of them escaped to France fearing for their lives. The Art of Losing novel by Alice Zeniter focuses on one such family.
It opens with Ali, a poor teenager. His father’s death in the 1940s makes his family’s financial situation even direr and to ease the burden, he enlists in the French army during World War II. On returning to Algeria two years later, his military pension can only do so much. One day when Ali and his brothers Djamel and Hamza are washing in the river, a current so strong that almost kills Ali brings with it good fortune — an oil press that they will later mend and use to make olive oil.
The Amrouches, said to have been rich when lions still roamed the land, feel their status threatened by Ali’s growing wealth. This marks the start of a rivalry that will play a part in Ali’s questionable choices during the war. But not entirely. Ali doesn’t side with the revolutionaries because he “needs proof if he is to believe in the struggle. If he cannot be certain of being on the winning side, he will not fight.”
At the end of the war, Ali’s neighbours start to alienate him. His workers quit one after the other; once the respected man, children hurl rocks at him when he leaves the house.
But Ali’s breaking point comes when a man sends him a message through his son: “Tell your father… that any day now, we’re going to cut his throat.”
Ali, his wife and three children flee to France (he will later sire six more).
In France, they and other Harkis are kept in internment camps under conditions so vile that some admit that if they had known it would be so bad, they would have stayed home.
“Algeria will speak of them as rats. Traitors. Dogs. Terrorists. Infidels. Bandits. Unclean. France will not speak of them at all, or will say little. Just as it stitches the borders of the resettlement camps with barbed wire, so France sews up its lips,” says the narrator whose identity we never get to know.
While the men wish they would have stayed home, the women resent their husbands. “… if it had been up to me, I would have stayed in Algeria… No one even thought to ask what we wanted. They just drag us around with them. It’s the men who make the mistakes, but we’re the ones who have to pay,” one woman tells Ali’s wife.
Once described as a mountain of a man because of his height, weight and wealth, Ali starts diminishing; and as the narrative focus shifts to his son Hamid, we see a son who once admired his father start getting embarrassed of him and finally hating him.
Conditions do not improve much when they are relocated, not at home nor outside where racism is rampant. There is the overt racism and then there are micro aggressions comparing Caucasians and Arabs. One might take this to be an unbearably sad novel, and in a way, it is — but it has a journalistic flair and terse, matter-of-fact narrative style that cushions the reader from some of the desolation without taking away the story’s power. The novel is absorbing throughout.
As a teenager, Hamid starts asking questions when his resentment of his father peaks on what exactly Ali did and predictably, Ali loses his temper. Later when the story shifts to that of Hamid’s daughter Naïma, retracing her family’s history, and is met with silence, Hamid realises how so much like his father he is: he can’t and won’t answer questions about life in Algeria, or life in the camp.
Early in the novel, the narrator says that fiction and research are what there are to fill silences, and as Chimamanda Adichie did in Half of a Yellow Sun, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor with Dust, Alice Zeniter joins the ranks of these authors in filling silences, whether individual or collective.