“How is a country born? And who brings it into the world?
In certain parts of Kabylia, there is a folk tradition some call ‘the sleeping child.’ It explains how a woman can give birth even though her husband has been gone for years: according to tradition, having been fathered by the husband, the child then dozes off in the womb and does not emerge until much later.
Algeria is like that sleeping child: it was conceived long ago, so long ago that no one can agree on a date, and for years it slept, until the spring of 1962.”
The Art of Losing is a multigenerational family saga done right.
What is immediately apparent about Zeniter’s novel is just how extraordinarily well-written it is. Its writing is not flowery or ornate, but it is so refreshingly and psychologically perceptive. More than anything, I think it really speaks to the level of insight that Zeniter has when it comes to her characters and the way they view their respective worlds. That is to say, Zeniter’s writing is striking because she is able to recognize and home in on what it is that’s striking about her characters and their milieux: the ways in which these milieux inform each other, refracted and reflected over the generations. Beyond this, Zeniter just has a remarkable facility with figurative language; her language is economic yet poetic, direct yet evocative.
“This is the reason why – to Naïma and to me – this part of the story seems like a series of quaint photographs (the oil press, the donkey, the mountain ridge, the burnouses, the olive groves, the floodwaters, the white houses clinging like ticks to steep slopes dotted with rocks and cedar trees) punctuated by proverbs; like picture postcards of Algeria that the old man might have slipped, here and there, into his infrequent accounts, which his children then retold, changing a few words here and there, and which his grandchildren’s imaginations later embroidered, extrapolated and redrew, so they could create a country and a history for their family.”
More than the writing, I think the biggest strength of The Art of Losing is not just the way it presents three complex and interesting characters representing three different generations of a family, but also the way that it is able to interweave insights and experiences from those generations throughout the novel. We get three different sections in this novel, pertaining to these three different generations: there is Ali, who is the patriarch of his family in Algeria; then Hamid, who is Ali’s eldest son, and who comes of age in France after spending his childhood in Algeria; and then Naïma, who is Hamid’s daughter, and who was born and raised in France. Each of these characters is nuanced and compelling in their own right, and each presents different issues pertaining to their own particular social and political environments.
As a patriarch who bears responsibility for his immediate and extended family, Ali is under immense pressure, and this means that he has to make some very difficult decisions to protect his family during the Algerian war for independence. In his perspective, we learn about his relationship to and feelings towards the French colonialists in Algeria, as well as the ways in which his sense of self becomes threatened when his position as a patriarch becomes destabilized and ultimately undermined. At the forefront of this section is a portrayal of French colonialism in Algeria, of the violence of war, and of the difficulty of “picking a side” when neither side can ever guarantee you safety or prosperity or, indeed, anything at all.
“For his part, Ali believes History has already been written, and, as it advances, is simply unfurled and revealed. All the actions her performs are not opportunities for change, but for revelation. Mektoub: ‘it is written.’ He does not know quite where: in the clouds, perhaps, in the lines on his hand, in miniscule characters inside his body, perhaps in the eye of God.”
Then we get Hamid’s perspective, which I personally found the most interesting. Having been traumatized from his childhood experiences during the Algerian war, Hamid arrives in France with no knowledge of how to speak, read, or write the French language. Through him, we explore what it’s like to bear two (seemingly contradictory) cultural identities–to be both Algerian and French–and to try to navigate these identities in his familial, social, academic, and romantic lives. We also become increasingly aware of the rift that grows between him and his family, the amount of pressure he is under as the eldest son for whom the family has sacrificed a lot, and from whom a lot is expected.
Finally, we have Naïma, a character who, though she “has roots” in Algeria, struggles to understand what that exactly means to her. Naïma wants to understand her heritage, but she is constantly shut out from it; it is not something her father, Hamid, wants to discuss. And so in her perspective we delve into how she comes to terms with this: how she must do her own research to learn more about Algeria, how she tries to reconcile fragmented and scattered accounts of her family with the history she is able to gather through various secondary sources. We also get a lot about how Naïma ‘s Algerian heritage relates to her identity, how the way her identity is perceived and the way she herself perceives it both force her to continually interrogate her place in French society.
“From this point there will be no more vignettes, no more brightly colored images that have faded over time to the sepia of nostalgia. From here on, they have been replaced by the twisted shards that have resurfaced in Hamid’s memory, refashioned by years of silence and turbulent dreams, by snippets of information Ali has let slip only to contradict, when asked, what he has said, by snatches of stories that no one can have witnessed and which sound like images from war movies. And between these slivers – like caulk, like plaster oozing between the cracks, like the silver coins melted in the mountains to create settings for coral trinkets, some as large as a palm – there is Naïma’s research, begun more than sixty years after they have left Algeria, which attempts to give some shape, some structure to something that has none, that perhaps never had.”
Zeniter is so precise in the way that she unravels all these characters’ experiences for us, and so what we get in the end is a novel that feels so richly populated by its characters’ inner lives. It’s a novel about the generations of a family, and it really feels like what Zeniter has portrayed here is a family, one whose members are interconnected in many ways yet broken apart in others; one with a history that feels substantial and real, with all the gaps and fragments and myths that constitute any family’s cumulative and growing history. It’s a very self-aware novel in this way: it calls attention to gaps in the story, to dramatic ironies, to knowledge that the characters are not privy to but that the narrator nevertheless knows and weaves into the story.
That being said, I think the reason why this novel didn’t get a higher rating from me is that its writing relies more on narration and less on letting us see events unfold as they’re happening. It wasn’t so much a matter of telling rather than showing, but moreso that because we spend a lot of time learning about what happened through these characters’ retrospective accounts, we don’t get as many scenes that just feature characters talking to each other and, by extension, highlighting the dynamics they have with other characters.
Regardless, The Art of Losing was just an excellent novel. To me, it did what The Parisian failed to do: it combined the personal and the historical such that neither one undermined the other, and it did so in a way that really resonated with me. (If you enjoyed this novel, I also highly recommend Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental , another novel that’s very similar to this one except that it focuses on Iran instead of Algeria.) I honestly haven’t heard many people talk about this book, so if you love multigenerational family sagas, I can’t recommend this one enough.