Alice Zeniter ‘The Art of Losing’

At the start of the Algerian war Ali hadn’t understood the independentists’ plan. He saw the French army repressions as terrible consequences which the FLN in their blindness hadn’t envisaged. img_1384He had never imagined that the strategists of the liberation had predicted and even hoped for them, knowing that they would make the French presence detestable in the eyes of the people. The strategists of Al Qaïda or of Daech have learnt from previous wars and they know that killing in the name of Islam will provoke a hatred of Islam and over and above this a hatred of dark skin, beards and head scarves leading to violence… it’s not collateral damage as Naïma thinks, it is precisely this their aim; that the situation becomes unsupportable for all of the European dark skinned populations and that they will be obliged to join them.***

Alice Zeniters sweeping novel of three generations of a family, of Naïma’s grandfather forced to leave Algeria for France at the end of the war of independence with his wife and children, of Naïma’s father Hamid, uprooted as a child from Algeria, and the silence around his life and then Naïma herself, living without understanding her roots. Zeniter applies some modern day perspective on Al Qaïda or Daesch as illustrated in the opening quote.

She examines Ali’s life in the first third of the book, taking time to set the scene as at the beginning of the war of independence Ali is a respected figure in his remote native village in Kabylie, where two separate generations of soldiers, those having fought for France in the First World War and those having fought for France in the Second World War met regularly at their association building, drawn by shared memories amongst the age groups and differences between the two groups. Slowly the FLN, a group that seem to have no real power, -how could they against the French occupier whose army Ali had seen close up, – appear in small numbers and then after a high profile FLN massacre the Army appear:

For the first time in Ali’s village, a column of jeeps arrive full of French soldiers with faces full of anger. They drive the villagers out of their houses striking them with their rifle butts. They make them lie on the ground, hands above their heads as they overturn and search the interiors, smashing jars and slashing beds. they are so brutally erratic that it’s clear that they dont know what they are looking for.***

The army then take Ali’s brother, Hamza, and two other villagers prisoners, but only Hamza returns, thus dividing the villagers into two camps, those loyal to Ali and those loyal to his local rivals, the Amrouche family:

In the early hours Hamza makes his own way back, shaken but uninjured. He had been neither beaten nor injured. He’d spent a night in a cell and he’d been let out twelve hours later with no explanation.
Back in the village Hamza tells the story of his detention over and over, slowly as if in the telling some sort of answer or clue would appear. Hamza insists that when they let him leave the barracks he was alone, he
didn’t see anyone else. At first they tell him he was lucky, they congratulate him. But as time goes by, as the absence of the two men ….. they start to look at him with suspicion muttering if he made it back he must have talked. But of what?
The rumour spreads through the village and is then amplified by the Amrouche

The pressure is then increased on the villagers when the FLN instruct the war veterans to refuse their pensions from the French government. Akli, a veteran from the first World War insists that he cannot accept this, a question of honour, otherwise he will have fought as a slave. When Akli is subsequently murdered by the FLN, Ali, who is full of angry at the death of his friend, is led to the barracks by the army captain but refuses to help him:

As they were leaving the barracks the interpreter, as if disappointed, said: you didn’t push him too hard… The officer looked at him with a mocking smile:
Why push? They saw him come in here, he spoke with me. He’ll soon understand that that’s enough to compromise him, and then he’ll help us.***

The army captain‘s cynical understanding of the situation is then confirmed as Ali, who is suspected after his visit to the barracks, comes to realise:

Nothing is sure, as long as we’re alive everything can be changed, but once we’re dead the story is set in stone and it’s he who does the killing that writes the story. Those killed by the FLN are traitors to the Algerian nation, and those killed by the army are traitors to France. Whatever had been their lives counts for nothing: death decides everything…the silence he had chosen that morning with the captain carries no weight because the FLN will decide for him that he is a traitor, if they decide to cut his throat from ear to ear. And all the honour he has shown will be washed away with the single movement of a blade designating him as a traitor.***

And so Ali and his family’s future is decided, he becomes a harki, as he and is family escape with many others as defeat becomes inevitable in 1962. And so begins a decade of wandering from one “temporary” refugee camp to another, an unwanted embarrassment in France, until they are settled in a small industrial town in Normandy.

This first part of the book is the story that is never passed down, Ali is too proud and speaks little or no French, his wife none at all, but what of Hamid? We follow Hamid’s life, an intelligent youth taught in French schools, and as so many other immigrant‘s children, the only one in the family or even the community that can communicate with the French administration. He is slowly choked by this life and leaves for Paris at eighteen, learning to silence his past as he has been taught, the very mention of the date they left Algeria is enough to tell the other Algerians that he is the son of a harki, a story illustrated after many nights drinking in a bar owned by a Kabyle:

One evening whilst praising the country of their birth, a little groggy from the beers he’d drunken, he naively answered, when asked that he’d arrived in France in ‘62.
(the bar owner’s) smile disappeared at once.***

Hamid has always been silent on his past to both his wife and daughter. Algeria becomes a dream for some of the third generation, some of Naïma’s cousins but she has no real feeling for it, fifty years later none of the family has dared return, the following quote from the then President of Algeria illustrates the feelings:

“The conditions are not yet right for the visit of harkis, it needs to be said. It’s exactly the same as if you asked a member of the French resistance to take the hand of a collaborator.”
Abdulaziz Bouteflika, Algerian President
14th June 2000.***

The final part of the book studies Naïma, the same age as Alice Zeniter and after visiting Algeria for work and understanding that in the countryside feelings still run high for the harkis, the grandchildren are treated as guilty for their grandparents crimes that they do not even understand and, what is more, that her Algerian family suspects that after all this time she has come to claim the house.

Zeniter finishes with Elizabeth Bishops poem, The Art Of losing of which two verses are quoted below:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
So many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.***

First Published in French as “L’Art de perdre” in 2017 by Flammarion.*** My translation


Benoît Philippon ‘Mamie Luger’

Bam, bam, Berthe reloads. Her limbs tremble. A lot of stress for an old woman of 102…. De Gore is lying a few yards from his dog kennel, he has a hole in the back and a hole in his ass, in addition to the official one. img_1382Shit, maybe she went a bit over the top. Berthe had never liked him, de Gore. The worthy descendant of his scumbag father. She hadn’t thought though that he’d wind up at the end of her shotgun, even if she had played with the idea for years..***

This book is the surprise selection for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, a book high on dry humour and regional dialect from the centre of France. The story opens on the initial quote, featuring Berthe a 102 year old firing first of all at her neighbour and then above the heads of the police that come to arrest her. Little do the police then realise the scope of the confessions and life story of Berthe. As the questioning begind we quickly understand that Berthe, famed for her flowery language has her own ideas of how to speak to those around her:

“f’you find my anwers too long, m’off home to listen to my game on the radio.”
“I suspect your game is finished by now.”
“Very clever! And why do you wanna know all this anyway?” says the grandmother getting annoyed.
“Its the protocol”.
“I dont give a fuck, me, if you’ve got a sore ass-hole.”
“I’m sorry” gasps Ventura.
“You’re the one talkin’ to me ’bout yer proctologue.”
“Protocole Berthe.”..***

The story tells us the life story of Berthe from being born during the first world war with a father killed at the front, to being brought up by a grandmother that survives by distilling fruit alcohol and selling it to any men left in the villages through to her many marriages, finishing up a widow each time, beginning by killing a nazi rapist to killing husbands for abuse and slowly going towards killing them for freedom.

The story takes us through many episodes in the police station as well with the detactive she calls Columbo and a short period in the holding cells where she talks with a young delinquant with neither understanding directly the other’s slang but with a transvestite translating for them, we see the instant respect of the youth when he discovers that she is a serial killer. We cover as well the detective being put in his place on women’s rights by the old lady as he tries to tackle her on the murder of a nazi that had raped her:

“You’ve got a nazi burried in your cellar”?
“Well done you’ve been listening”.
“That you assassinated then”? checked Ventura in case the old lady was saying this from senility.
“Oh, no,in fact you haven’t been listening. you missed the rape bit”.
“Yes, of course, there was the attempted rape”, corrected the inspector
“Attempted? my description wasn’t clear enough”? said Berthe with outrage…..
“We’re in 2016, I’m talking to you about rape and you’re insinuating that I’ve something to reproach myself for”?
“Mrs Gavignol..”, the inspector tried to recover.
“Oh yeah, so now we’re putting on the form”? says Berthe bitterly.
“Berthe”! Ventura replies, “I couldn’t care less about your nazi, the exceptional circumstaces plead in your favour…”
“Decidedly speaking, the more you talk, the more insulting you become”.***

The book was a pleasant read but a bit too long for me.

First Published in French as “Mamie Luger” in 2018 by Les Arènes.*** My translation

Edouard Louis ‘Who Killed My Father’

When we ask the American intellectual Ruth Gilmore what the word racism means to her, she replies that racism is the exposition of certain populations to a premature death.img_1381
This definition also works for male domination, the hatred of homosexuality, or of transgenders, class domination and all phenomena of social and political oppression.***

In this short book of less than 100 pages, read for the “Roman de Rochefort” prize, Edouard Louis revisits one of the many themes of his book examining his own childhood in Picardy “The End of Eddy“. In this initial work Eddy’s father was a product of his upbringing and life, basically promulgating the creed of machoism, alcohol to the detriment of self improvement and woe betide anyone including his family who did not conform. Here Edouard Louis revisits his father, remembering as best as he can his every interaction with this father and explaining politically who his father was, how he became who he was, and his evolution since that date. The book opens telling us clearly in which direction it will take us, illustrated in the opening quote.

After reassessing his relationship with his father, openly trying to put the good moments in perspective with the bad, including his fathers playful moments such as driving his car at dangerous speeds to annoy his wife whilst winking at Eddy in the mirror as opposed to the story of his hiding the christmas presents in the car and having a hit and run driver crush the car setting him into a wild rage, Edouard Louis visits his father who he has not seen for some time and we discover a premature old and unwell man:

The problems began in the factory where you worked… afternoon we received a call from the factory telling us that a weight had fallen on you. Your back had been crushed, squashed, they told us you would be unable to walk for several years.***

Edouard Louis’ father is then exposed to a premature death due to class domination, where he perpetuated his own fathers class and due to social and political oppression, and here Edourd Louis examines the real effect on his father and his father’s condition of this oppression, using his father to represent his class, the style of this “pamphlet”, naming the politicians and the effects of their decisions, is illustrated here:

In 2009 Nicolas Sarkozy’s government and his accomplice Martin Hirsch replaced the RMI, a minimum payed by the state to people without work, by the RSA. You had received the RMI ever since you had been unable to work: the change from the RMI to the RSA was “to incite the return to employment” as the government put it. The truth of the matter is that from then on you were constantly harased by the state to get back to work, in spite of your disastrous state of health, in spite of what the factory had done to you.***

His father who had been totally opposed to any political activity, in part due to fear of the police and the judicial system, as Eddy was growing up, finishes by asking him if he is still politically active, and we understand that time and his father have moved on as he assents that it is good that he is still active. In the relative absence of wide political discussion, sure there are politicians and journalists, Edouard Louis’ is a voice with a wide readership adding his deply rooted thoughts to the debate.

First Published in French as “Qui a tué mon père” in 2018 by Editions du Seuil.
To be published in English in 2019 by New Directions Publishing Corporation.
*** My translation


Olivier Norek ‘Surtensions’

The town of Marveil is home to the largest prison complex in Europe. Like an undesirable neighbour, an evil twin. They are both of the same size. Exactly three hundred and forty five acres. If you fold the map of Marveil about its centre, the town and the prison cover each other entirely, with the symmetry of a Rorschach image.***

welcome back into the world of Olivier Norek, the ex-police detective set in the 93 pronounced ‘nine- three’ the poorest of the départements immediately surrounding the city of Paris and as the opening quote tells us he has not given up his social criticism of modern day France, here of the carceral system, you will never be ready to find yourself in the prison he describes here of Marveil. An extra quote for the comparison between the two worlds he describes and the difference between the already unfavored world of Marveil and the hell of its prison:

Five hundred meters from the town centre where families could be found doing their weekly shopping, were the first barbed wire fences protecting the crumbling town walls from the concrete monster with the oppressive layout. It was described as “A model of the French prison system” at its inauguration in 1970. Today it is nothing more than a violent jungle which the prison guards control at distance without daring to enter the prison cells or the exercise yard.***

The crux of the story is a mercenary Boyan Mladic who is locked up in Marveil and the machievelic plan set up by the corrupt attorney Tireto who organises a break in to the police evidence room in the town of Marveil in order to remove the physical proof against Mladic. In order to ensure that the actions cannot be traced back to him or his client, he suggests to a Corsican group that they break in to obtain the evidence against one of their group and gives them the numbers of four other non related lots of evidence in order to muddy the waters:

Hello Mr Darcy. Attorney Tireto calling.
-I’m in trouble? answered the man almost out of habit.
-Quite the opposite. An opportunity. Boyan Mladic still worries you as much?
– it’s what I asked him to do and what he knows that worry me
-you had described him as loyal all the same.
-Boyan is a soldier. A legionnaire and a mercenary, he won’t talk even if he’s beaten, of that I’m sure. But prison stretches even the deepest loyalties…I’m worried that for the right bargain he could talk. How do you intend to handle this?
-By getting him out. But by getting someone else to do the dirty work.
-With no ay of tracing it back to me or any of my companies?
-There is no need to worry. Even they won’t know they’re working for us.***

We follow each of the incarcerated protagonists in Marveil and the relationships between them whilst at the same time on the outside the police group of Captain Coste, the same as in  previous stories of the series, Code 93, follow the events as their own police station is robbed and they cannot understand the links between the stolen evidence:

Its not the number of pieces of evidence the were stolen today that perturb us so much as the absurdity of what was taken. A personal computer, a luxury watch, a CD containing wire taps, a GPS and a hunting knife. Five separate pieces of evidence from five different enquiries, carried out by five different police services. And mostly objects of no value. even the crimes are unrelated.***

The story contains murder, kidnapping, pedophilia and extorsion on the outside, in a world we learn that is much safer than the world in the prison, as the police team, always one step behind, slowly get to grips with what is happening.

Olivier Norek’s police world is steeped in his own experience, but I don’t think that it will encourage youngsters to become policemen. This was the second book of his ’93’ series, although this one was also interesting, I think I’ll leave it there.

First Published in French as “Surtensions” in 2016 by Michel Lafon
*** My translation

Pascale Roze ‘Fighter Zero’

In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets underway . Kitted out in black, it’s deadly load strapped to its underside, it starts up. The engine roars in the silence of dawn. The propeller spins. The plane shakes, lights out, rolls down the runway, lifts its nose and begins to climb.With a constant thrust it climbs to five thousand metres and levels out. The sun has risen. From the sea and from the sky the fighter is visible in every direction. My name is Laura Carlson. I was born on the 10th of January 1944 in New York. My father died on the 7th of April 1945 in Okinawa. ***

So begins Pascale Roze’s 1996 Goncourt prize winning novel, as Laura Carlson tells us of her life, of a father she never new, of her mother, a war widow left with nothing in a foreign land, forced to move back into her parental home in the ironically named Charity street with her baby daughter Laura. Her mother never really recovered from losing her husband, when Laura’s grandparents let her mother out, she would drink to excess and go to servicemen’s clubs looking for a man, any man and then come home drunk. Faced with this her tyrannical grandmother kept her mother sedated and locked in and in this state her mother didn’t speak to her or anyone else for the best part of eighteen years for which Laura could not forgive her, so that in her own words:

In the morning, even before the sun rises, the fighter gets under My childhood was grim. The appartement was grim, my grandparents were grim and my mother sank into a grim silence. ***

So, onto the main line of the story, as Laura grows up no one speaks to her of her father, at school for one year, she gets to know her only childhood friend, Nathalie, who’s family has just been forced to leave Algeria during the war of independence. Nathalie pushes Laura to investigate her fathers death and from the date of his death and the ship on which he was stationed, she learns that they were attacked by a Kamikaze and that he must of died in this attack.

The key point in this story occurs when Nathalie gives her a book written by a Kamikaze before his death, called Tsurukawa shortly before Nathalie’s family move back to Northern Africa. Laura is clearly perturbed and begins hearing the roaring noise of an engine in her ears at random moments of day or night and persuades herself that it is Tsurukawa’s Zero heading towards her. As she begins her studies in Paris, she meets and has a long term relationship with Bruno a student musician. Their relationship is interrupted when Bruno is called up and Laura’s mental state regresses, one day when Bruno is with her in Paris we understand that she is now mixing up Bruno and Tsurukawa:

Bruno seemed to be getting back to normal, or at least had recovered the will to work, he spent his whole leave seated at his desk. I preferred him like this. I could once again begin to admire him. And I told myself that an arrangement might be possible between Tsurukawa and him. ***

And then later she tells him:

I said that when we made love, it was now Tsurukawa who took means that he ravaged me. ***

As the book reaches its climax, Laura drives her car faster and faster along a road, trying as Tsurukawa had explained, to keep her eyes open to the last second. Then she awakes in hospital and looks at the photos of Tsurukawa and of her father:

For the first time I really looked at them and thought of my whole life. My name is Laura Carlson. I don’t know who that man is who has his arm around mum’s waist. I put the photos down next to Tsurukawa’s diary and compared them. I don’t know which of Andrew Carlson or Tsurukawa Oshi is my father. ***

First Published in French as “Le Chasseur Zéro” in 1996 by Albin Michel.
*** my translation

Jean-Christophe Ruffin ‘The Hanging Man from Conakry’

Aurel, with a quick glance at the group, sized them all up. With the exception of the African, all the others were Whites, over fifty, bulging stomachs, eyes glowing with alcohol. They were dressed in Hawaïen shirts unbuttoned down to the waist with either swimming trunks or shorts beneath. They mostly wore flip-flops or had slipped barefoot into old moccasins.***

Jean-Christophe Ruffin, member of the “Académie Française” and ex-French Ambassador from west Africa, winner of the “prix Goncourt” in 2001 tries his hand here with a murder mystery, making the journey from Goncourt to mystery in the opposite direction from Pierre Lemaitre, where his descriptions are as interesting as the mystery itself which opens early one morning with the discovery of a dead white body hanging from the top of the mast of one of the yachts anchored out in the small port of Conakry in the Republic of Guinea and with the arrival of the unlikely investigator Aurel Timescu of the French consular service described by his boss to the other members of the Conakry yacht club as:

A Romanian, imagine that, and the awful accent he speaks with. He’s such a walking catastrophe that I don’t know what to give him to do. I’ve relegated him to a cupboard. Literally. Without a telephone or a computer. You might well ask me why we keep him? It’s not as if we haven’t tried all of the tricks. All of his bosses have wanted to get rid of him, me included. But he’s a career civil servant, so there’s nothing one can do.***

Aurel the anti-hero is culturally at odds with the other ex-pats present in Conakry,as can be understood from his first visit to the yacht club to question the Europeans present about the dead man as he quickly sums them up illustrated in the opening quote. Aurel was brought up in the Romania of Ceaucescu and has thus developed a resilience the others could not begin to imagine, typified by his arrival at the port that morning:

It was midday when the chauffeur drew up at the entry to the marina where Aurel, a member of the French embassy’s consular service who, despite his small frame and thin limbs, needed to expend a great deal of energy to extract himself from the car. It was a two door Clio, the service’s smallest and most knocked about car, the only one his boss, the Consul General would allow him to use. Aurel acted as though it were a luxury sedan car, he tilted the passenger seat forward and lowered himself onto the rear seat, designed for a young child. He settled himself in with dignity, his knees tucked under his chin and his head wedged up against the roof. He descended from the car with the same air of importance, after all Severe was one of the titles of Roman emperors, as was Felix, incidentally. Aurel had never forgotten this lesson from history: dignity and happiness are sovereign attributes. Each one of us can seize upon them if he wishes. It was thus, with dignity and joy that the consul advanced towards the club-house, through the two rows of palm trees standing to honour him. ***

As the story unfolds and wrapped and ready solutions are proposed to him, concerning robbery, Aurel never loses from sight the key point for him, why would robbers come for the money and then take the time to hoist the dead body up the mast? As Aurel finally understands the intricacies of the situation his years under Ceausescu leave him with all of the necessary experience to extract a confession! Read in the Summer break.

First Published in French as “Summer” in 2018 by Flammarion.
*** my translation

Monica Sabolo ‘Summer’

Mother had put out a table cloth and layed a box on my sisters plate….My sister let out a cry of surprise as she unfolded the scarf,2D670B9D-EF27-49E3-81B3-FE3B8160C0ED whose bluebird seemed more alive than ever, then she stood and took my mother in her arms…… I had the feeling that I had watched a heartbreaking ritual, as if my mother had offered her youth and her beauty to her daughter.***

Monica Sabolo presents us a story of the disappearance one summer day soon after her nineteenth birthday, at a family party on the shores of Lac Leman, of Summer Wassner, in this story read for the “Roman de Rochefort”. As Benjamin, Summer’s brother, five years younger than her, years later, slowly unfolds the tale of the mystifying dissapearance of his sister from her ideal family, a dissapearance which utterly destroys his own life and that of his parents, we slowly realise that Benjamin is, despite himself, an unreliable witness, as he relates key moments of the story, such as his own frustration when his father buys an aquarium for Summer:

My father loved water as well….For her ninth birthday, he bought Summer an aquarium with a complex system to filter and to add oxygen to the water and which hummed continually…..two folding chairs were placed just in front , and that’s where I found Summer and my father, sometimes early in the morning, absorbed in watching an illuminated under water forest.***

We must remember that in spite of the maturity of Benjamin the narrator, at the time of the events, on Summer’s ninth birthday here for example, Benjamin was only four years old. He is nonetheless haunted by this day as we slowly realise from the dreams he relates to his psychiatrist which we initially assume refer to Lac Leman from whose bank she dissapears:

Summer is there. She’s wearing a blue night shirt, which floats around her like wings or fins, the smooth  oscillations of a skate.***

This story is narrated by Benjamin, after he suffers an unexpected nervous breakdown, as he says he has barely consciously thought of his sister in years. He is forced to revisit the unsolved events, talking to certain of the people present that day, Jill his sister’s closest friend and his own ex-lover, and his parent’s closest friend of the time, Marina Savioz. Benjamin is slowly brought to question his own certitudes of the idyllic life of their rich family living on the shore of Lac Leman. There are certain clues such as his mother’s  reaction when his father’s friends compare her to the pre-adolescent Summer:

“They look like sisters”,  called out dad’s friends, as they moved towards them on the loose gravel in light dresses, and mum blushed, pushing back a strand of hair which was coming loose from her poneytail…..It’s true that mother looked like an adolescent, with her lean look, the way she smoked, a certain tendency to provocation.***

As Summer moves into adolescence her relationship with her mother becomes, naturally, strained with the story of the scarf, illustrated in the opening quote, epitomising the rift, a scarf which has great sentimental value for Benjamin’s mother and which Summer is always stealing until one day she hands it over to Summer, only for Summer to no longer want it.
Slowly as the family secrets are stripped away by the different people that Benjamin finally takes it on himself to visit, he forces himself to see the secret he has been hiding from himself all these years.  He then confronts the inspector that had been charged with the case with something he remembered the inspector telling him years before:

“you once told me that you always find people eventually, they leave a trace, didn’t you?”
“Its true, nearly always, yes”***

This is a powerful well written story of loss, trust and betrayal I recommend it.

First Published in French as “Summer” in 2017 by JC Lattès.
*** my translation