Alice Zeniter: Writing the Silence of a History Without Heroes

The Art of Losing won the 2017 Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, became a best-seller, and was recently published in the United States. Alice Zeniter’s book portrays three generations in a family of Harkis, Algerian soldiers who fought alongside the French army during the Algerian War, and by extension the men and women who chose to remain French after the country’s independence. As a novelist, playwright, and Harki descendent herself, the author explores things left unspoken and the absence of heritage in a combination of personal and collective accounts.
Alice Zeniter. © Astrid di Crollalanza/Flammarion

On both sides of the Mediterranean, Harkis are the black sheep and the biggest losers of French-Algerian history. As they chose to remain French after their country gained independence in 1962, these Algerians were accused of collaboration by the National Liberation Front and were shamed, tortured, or murdered. France ungratefully refused to provide a safe haven to these thousands of “dark-skinned men,” many of whom had fought for the Liberation in 1944-1945. Instead, the French government assigned them to internment camps, abandoning those who bore the shameful memories of colonization and a dirty war it preferred to forget.

Naïma is a free, young woman who has never been to Algeria and doesn’t speak the language of her grandparents. Raised by her parents, Hamid and Clarisse, she grew up with her three sisters in a housing project in Normandy. When she is 29, after an argument with her uncle who acts as the girls’ self-appointed moral guardian, she reconnects with an absent and almost imaginary land. It takes a trip to the country, on the pretext of collecting drawings from a painter she is presenting at an exhibition, for Algeria to take shape in all its complexity. “No one bequeathed Algeria to you,” says Ifren, the painter’s nephew. “Do you really think that a country can be passed down through the bloodline? That the Kabyle language was buried somewhere in your chromosomes and it would come to life the moment you set foot in Algeria?”

In an extremely well-documented saga, Alice Zeniter, who descends from Harkis herself, retraces the story of three generations: Ali and Yema, the grandparents, forced to flee Algeria after the independence; Hamid, their son, who invents a French life for himself while his father sinks into silence; Naïma, living in France during the terrorist attacks, who is seized by a memory that no one passed down to her, yet one that she must accept in order to move forward. This is one meaning of the title, The Art of Losing, borrowed from the American poet Elizabeth Bishop. By confronting the forgotten figures of French-Algerian history, Alice Zeniter has created a vast, powerful novel in constant movement, in which so many questions are deliberately left unanswered.


The Art of Losingby Alice Zeniter, translated from French by Frank WynneFarrar, Straus and Giroux, 20221. 448 pages, 14.99 dollars.