The Art of Losing
Naïma has always known that her family came from Algeria – but up until now, that meant very little to her. Born and raised in France, her knowledge of that foreign country is limited to what she’s learned from her grandparents’ tiny flat in a crumbling French sink estate: the food cooked for her, the few precious things they brought with them when they fled.
On the past, her family is silent. Why was her grandfather Ali forced to leave? Was he a harki – an Algerian who worked for and supported the French during the Algerian War of Independence? Once a wealthy landowner, how did he become an immigrant scratching a living in France?
Naïma’s father, Hamid, says he remembers nothing. A child when the family left, in France he re-made himself: education was his ticket out of the family home, the key to acceptance into French society.
But now, for the first time since they left, one of Ali’s family is going back. Naïma will see Algeria for herself, will ask the questions about her family’s history that, till now, have had no answers.
Comments from the Judges
Deriving its title from the piercing first line of Elizabeth Bishop’s arch poem “One Art”, The Art of Losing follows three generations of an Algerian family from the 1950s to the present day—as they progressively lose, in the fog of conflict and post-colonial transition, their country, their roots, and their innocence. The narrative wings its way from the contested highlands of Northern Algeria to a French refugee camp, to the streets of Paris and back, borne forward by a cast of nuanced characters: from the patriarch Ali to his granddaughter Naïma, heir to a new digital age in which old prejudices and presumptions persist. Each is profoundly human in their passions, griefs, vanities, contradictions and silences. The family’s journey unspools in a deft weave of fiction and research, as the narrator fills in with compassion and imagination what the clan’s muteness about the past have refused to yield. Symphonic in historical and emotional scope, the novel is by turns infuriating, unflinching, wry, recalcitrant, sensual, aporetic, courageous. It offers insights at every scale, from the national and the individual, about the fluid nature of identity; how our relations to place and to each other situate and perhaps free us. Refusing easy answers, pat politics and cultural caricatures while acknowledging their presence and seductive power in our time, The Art of Losing is a loving and clear-eyed sifting of the stories we tell ourselves
NOMINATING LIBRARY COMMENTS
After the Algerian War for Independence, Ali and his family have to flee Algeria, Ali being then considered as a traitor since he fought on the side of the French Army. Even in France he is seen as a Harki by his fellow Algerians. Through the lives of Ali, the First World War veteran and wealthy landowner in Algeria, his son Hamid who lives in France and considers himself as French and his grand-daughter Naïma who never visited Algeria, Alice Zeniter portrays a moving family saga that spans three generations. she explores how this war violently divided communities and how people were faced with loss – of country and identity. In a very subtle way she depicts their relation to the faraway country, either seen as a lost paradise or a foreign land, and the consequences of past actions on future generations. Ambitious in its form, this novel tackles sensitive issues – colonialism, immigration, exile – that have been poisoning both French and Algerian societies for more than 50 years. Bibliothèque publique d’information, France