‘The Art of Losing’ by Alice Zeniter – From Algeria to France


The Art of Losing’ by Alice Zeniter (2017) – 431 pages                  Translated from the French by Frank Wynne


431 pages. No, this is definitely not a novella. During this November, this reader has learned that he sometimes requires something more substantial than a novella. Novellas have their place, but full novels have their place also.

‘The Art of Losing’ by Alice Zeniter has won the 100,000 pound Dublin Literary Award this year, the world’s largest prize for a single novel published in English.

Why read a novel about an Algerian family being confronted with the struggle for independence of Algeria from France during the 1950s? Because people are people the world over, and Alice Zeniter has captured so much of human behavior that applies to people everywhere.

Colonization, like slavery, was one of the great evils of the past. In nearly every case, the colonizers reaped the financial and other benefits of the natural resources from their colonies while the great majority of the native folk who lived there were mostly left in poverty. The French military patrolled Algeria like an occupied country and torture was the French technique to keep the Algerians in line.

Ali’s family is poor like most Algerian families under French rule. He enlists in an Algerian unit of the military fighting for France during World War II.

In the four battles for Monte Cassino, soldiers from the colonies were sent to the front lines; the French sent Moroccans, Tunisians, and Algerians; the British sent Indians and New Zealanders. They provided the cannon fodder, the dead and the wounded that meant the Allies could afford to lose fifty thousand men on a rocky outcrop.”

After the war, Ali has the good fortune to get an olive press, and the profits from his olive oil business as well as his French military pension allow him to provide a comfortable living for his family.

During the early 1950s, the push for Algerian independence heats up. The most fervent rebels are the Muslim mujahideen in the FLN who operate in the desert mountains. They try to force the ex-French soldiers in Algeria to give up their military pensions and have nothing to do with the French. The Algerian War for independence is usually given the time frame of from 1954 to 1962.

Both the French military officials and the FLN are ruthless not only with their real enemies but with anyone they suspect of helping their enemy.

Ali and his family are stuck in the middle. He wants to keep his olive oil business profitable and that means keeping peace in his town, so he meets with the French officials there. Of course the FLN hears about it, and Ali must worry about the safety of his family.

Lakhdaria, formerly Palestro

After Algerian independence is achieved in 1962, Ali and his entire family are denounced as traitors to the cause of independence. This is a scary time for the family, because there are brutal retaliations against traitors.

Ali makes arrangements to relocate his family to France. For the first ten months of their French life, the family must live in a tent in a relocation camp inside France. They can not travel outside the camp, and the camp is, of course, overcrowded with “harkis” which is the name given to these Algerians who supposedly helped the French and now had to leave Algeria.

For these people to forget an entire country, they would have to be offered a new one. But the doors to France were not thrown open to them, only the gates of a camp.”

‘The Art of Losing’ is a multi-generational saga covering about sixty years of this Algerian, now French, family. In the last section, the granddaughter of Ali returns to Algeria.

To have waged such a war only to end up neither with democracy or stability is a terrible waste.”

This is a family story told in vivid and affecting fashion. Near the end of Section II, there is a well-earned epiphany that brought tears to my eyes. That does not happen often.


Grade:   A







5 responses to this post.

  1. I thought this was a finely nuanced novel about a complex situation.
    And yes, novellas are fine, and I like them, but they can never supplant the novel for me.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, finely nuanced. The behavior of both the French occupiers and the Algerian FLN rebels is criticized. Zeniter doesn’t take sides, and that’s a good thing.
      I suppose the longest novel I have read is ‘War and Peace’.



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