Losing a country; Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter


This is my review of  L’Art de Perdre by Alice Zeniter.

This saga covering three generations of an Algerian Kabyle family whose lives are torn apart by the struggle for independence from colonial rule which forces their reluctant migration to a France prepared to give them only a grudging reception, provides the clearest insight into a piece of recent history for which the repercussions still make an impact.

The novel begins and ends with Naïma, the superficially liberated young woman employed in a Parisian gallery selling modern art. From the outset she appears unfocused, continually feeling that her life is out of control. This seems in part due to her ignorance about the “real” Algeria, of which relatives old enough to remember living there are remarkably reluctant to talk, the lack of French being a further barrier in some cases.

The book is divided into three parts, one for each generation. Returning from military service in France during World War Two, Naïma’s impoverished grandfather Ali comes across an olive press which he can use to establish a successful business, making his family one of the two richest in his village. Wary of independence movements like the ruthless FLN, Ali has no desire to collaborate with the French soldiers trying to maintain security, but when a colleague is murdered for having continued to accept a pension from France for his war service, Ali knows he no longer has a choice. The most minimal degree of cooperation with the French falsely brands Ali as a “Harki” (one of the native Algerians who fought for France in the War of Independence from 1954 to 1962), so that eventually emigration to France seems the only option.

Part Two covers Ali’s experience of making a living in France, stripped of his prosperity and status, segregated in a forest lumber camp or a grim urban apartment block, sadly estranged from his bright eldest son Hamid who takes the first opportunity to abandon what seem like the shackles of his Kabyle identity, even to the point of marrying a French girl. In Part Three, a work project provides the impetus for Naïma, who is one of Hamid’s daughters, to cross the Mediterranean to visit Algeria for herself. Will it be dangerous to visit the isolated village where some relatives still live? Will she be accepted? Will anything remain of the old way of life? Will she gain any emotional relief from the experience?

Immersed as I was in this long novel, some sentences seem too protracted and complicated, a measure perhaps of the author’s obvious intellect, as she explores in depth her characters’ varied and multi-faceted motivations and reactions to events. Alice Zeniter’s heritage as the descendant of a Harki, with an Algerian father and French mother, enables her to provide the vital hallmark of authenticity, although I have heard her declare in an interview that she does not identify particularly with Naïma, but prefers as an author to observe all her characters objectively from a slight distance.

The author is a gifted story-teller, with the power to convey a strong sense of place, and to develop realistic characters. I liked the well-chosen quotations at the start of each section (“Les jeunes n’accepteront plus ce que les parents ont accepté” – “Il n’est pas de famille qui ne soit le lieu d’un conflit de civilisations”), and the snippets of history, fruit of her obviously thorough research, are useful in explaining the background. The many different and shifting viewpoints are woven skilfully into the story, to help one understand the choices people made and the price they paid for this in each case.
The title is taken, perhaps surprisingly, from the French translation of a poem by the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”, which contains the lines:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

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.”

As an Algerian friend tells Naïma, “You can come to a country without belonging to it…You can lose a country…..Don’t play at being an Algerian if you don’t want to come back to Algeria, What would be the point of that?

This is the kind of novel one is sad to finish, which stays in the mind and influences one’s thinking on a subject

“Sing buried sing” by Jesmyn Ward

This is my review of “Sing Unburied Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.

This imaginative and unconventional novel links the experiences of two young black boys who suffer ingrained racial prejudice, two generations apart, in the US state of Mississippi. In the opening chapter, thirteen-year-old Jojo tries to prove he is becoming a man by helping “Pop”, his black grandfather, to slaughter and skin a goat. The explicit, unflinching description of this is a foretaste of what is to come. Jojo’s main concern is to care for his little sister Kayla, since his mother Leonie is neglectful between working long hours and “snorting crushed pills”, with his white father Michael is serving time in Parchman. This is a penitentiary in real life, notorious for its harsh treatment of black prisoners as farm labourers. The second boy, Richie, sent to Parchman when less than ten years old, is at first protected to some extent by “Pop” when also imprisoned there in his youth.

The bleakness of the accumulated circumstances, together with the tendency of two main characters to vomit as nauseam, came close to putting me off reading this, but I was drawn in by Jojo’s appealing character and the relationships between the family members. When the point of view switches to Leonie, she triggers more sympathy than one might expect, proving to be an immature mother infatuated with her partner Michael, rather than inherently evil, trapped in the vicious circle of wanting to love her children but not knowing how to show it, particularly since Jojo and Kayla have formed such a tight bond which excludes her. She is in fact traumatised, still grieving for her brother who was murdered in a racist attack.

I appreciate that the use of a first person narrative for Jojo, Leonie and Richie creates an authentic sense of immediacy and transports us directly into their thoughts, but I agree with reviewers who argue that too often their southern idioms interwoven with some vivid, quirky descriptions slip into the articulate, literary style of the author herself, which does not ring true in the context.

The theme is sufficiently powerful not to require the devices of magical realism and the ghosts which increasingly haunt the novel. Again, I can see that the title, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” reflects Jesmyn Ward’s desire to show how the suffering of past generations of slaves and exploited black Americans still burdens the present, with all its ongoing injustice, but this does not require the inclusion of ghosts, unless perhaps it is to indicate enduring superstitions.

Jesmyn Ward has a talent for creating a strong sense of place : “some kind of bad earth. Like the bayou when the water runs out after the moon or it ain’t rained and the muddy bottom, where the crawfish burrow, turns black and gummy under the blue sky and stinks”. Her lyrical prose has been compared to William Faulkner’s, but her style tends to become overblown, particularly towards the end of the book which seemed to me to run off the rails somewhat, with a rather contrived, mawkish ending. To admire this novel without major reservations, I think one has to believe in ghosts which can only be seen by those with psychic powers.

“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper


This is my review of Force of Nature by Jane Harper.

When Alice Russell fails to return from a corporate retreat involving a team-building exercise in the remote Australian Giralang Ranges with their sinister recent history as the haunt of a serial killer, Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper naturally assume a link with their undercover work to persuade Alice to obtain information which will incriminate her employers at BaileyTennants, a family firm suspected of long-term money laundering. As the story develops, alternating between the search for Alice and the flashbacks revealing the chain of events from the start of the four day retreat, it becomes clear that at least four of her work colleagues have a clear motive for killing her. Another possibility is of course the emergence of a new copy-cat serial killer. Or has Alice simply seized the opportunity to go AWOL for a whileas the least-worst option?

As in “The Dry” which made the author’s name on the bestseller list, Jane Harper sustains her talent for writing psychological thrillers, keeping a tight control on her material to drip-feed dramatic events and clues, and developing her characters in-depth as she ramps up the tension, exploiting to the full with a strong sense of place the “force of nature” in the menace of the wild rain-swept landscape, in which one tree is indistinguishable from another, paths peter out or offer confusing choices, carpet pythons lurk in rotten trunks, and communication with the outside world is abruptly cut off, the sole mobile phone smuggled onto the retreat providing too weak and fitful a signal to provide more than the odd tantalising fragment of contact.

In a kind of adult Aussie take on “Lord of the Flies”, the force of nature is also revealed in the rapid disintegration of the façade of civilised behaviour between the five women once they are transplanted from their structured work environment to the wilderness where basic survival becomes the main issue. There are parallels of course, between the way people bully and manipulate each other in their “normal” everyday world and the more physically brutal and critical way they may compete for vital scarce resources in situations of physical extremity. As one character observes, “It wasn’t any one thing that went wrong, it was a hundred little things.” Each inexorably adds to the ultimate crisis.

Although, when one reflects on it afterwards, not much happens, and the power of the tale depends on how the facts are revealed, the novel proved a gripping read at the time. Any repetition can be justified as reinforcing the oppressive situation in which the team of five women find themselves, and I also liked the way that the author knows when to stop, having given us the denouement but leaving the details of the outcomes to our imagination.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie – “Do not believe that you alone can be right”

This is my review of  Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Since it is a modern reworking of the classical tale of Antigone by Sophocles, although this was not specifically stated in the edition I read, the reader knows that “Home Fire” cannot end well, and that the author may be forgiven for a climax which may seem a little far-fetched and over-dramatic by modern standards.

The author draws on her experiences as a Pakistani to popularise ancient philosophical arguments into an emotionally charged exploration of the conflicting pressures to which Muslims may be exposed in Britain today: family loyalty and duty, ingrained religious beliefs, the desire to belong, be accepted, or succeed in not only one’s private life but also in the wider culture, versus love which may cut across any divide.

The story is told from the viewpoint of five characters who represent a spectrum of personalities and attitudes. Isma and her younger sister Anneka are two young, British Pakistani women pursuing academic courses in sociology and law respectively, who choose to wear a headscarf, are repelled even by the smell of wine and pray regularly, but here the similarities end. The serious-minded Isma puts her career ambitions on ice after graduation in order to care for Anneka and her twin brother Parvaiz when they were orphaned by their mother’s death, only pursuing an American PhD course in sociology when they seem old enough to live independently. The beautiful but passionate and reckless Anneka is devastated by her brother’s decision to join an extreme fundamentalist group in Raqqa, and furious with her sister for reporting this to the police, in a pragmatic attempt to protect the family from blame for his defection. Parvaiz himself seems immature and lost rather than evil, his main interest being in sound technology which can unfortunately be harnessed by the jihadists for their appalling videos of executions.

A contrasting view of integrated Muslims in Britain is provided by Eamonn Lone, the westernised, indulged son of the ambitious Karamat, who has achieved the goal of Home Secretary after a life-time of politicking, by turns trading on and repudiating his heritage. He has earned the undying hatred of Isma and her siblings by refusing to investigate how their absentee jihadist father died on the way to Guantanamo because, “They’re better off without him”.

Kamila Shamsie manages to include a wide range of viewpoints and arguments. Whereas the women are strong, the male characters tend to be weak or have very obvious feet of clay, which reduces one’s empathy with them. I agree with those who would like to have seen more of the thoughtful Isma who is studying sociology in an attempt “to understand why the world is so unfair”, or with those who found the section on Parvaiz too fragmented and rushed – although this could well have been intended to show his mental confusion as the scales fall from his eyes in the Jihadi hell to which he is transported.

The interplay between these characters provides the brew for an intriguing plot, the slow revelation of which made this into a page turner. However, knowing that it had won a major prize and been short-listed for another, I was initially very disappointed by the author’s style, in particular the tendency to slip into artificial, unnatural sentences. Even when I was hooked and admiring some of the strong dialogues, I was continually aware of passages that are too disjointed, condensed or overblown. I appreciate Kamila Shamsie’s up-to-date use of modern social media and internet technology to support her plot, but felt that the tone becomes too slick in later chapters, too larded with “House of Cards” cynicism and neat contrivances, with too many stereotypes like Farooq, who grooms Parvaiz with such a blatant lack of subtlety, together with the borderline Mills and Boon approach to romance.

I can understand the desire to write an accessible novel with wide appeal which lends itself readily to a film adaptation. This is a good choice for a reading group, or to provoke discussion, but I would have been more moved by a novel which dared to break away from the constraints of a classical tragedy in order to achieve a more measured and reflective approach, such as I have just found in Kazuo Ishiguru’s “An Artist of the Floating World”.

“Untangling the fateful web” – The Fall of the Ottomans by Eugene Rogan

This is my review of “The Fall of the Ottomans” by Eugene Rogan

The details of the Eastern Front during World War One are less well-known than the bitter battles in the trenches of France and Belgium, but are clearly important for an understanding not only of the fall of the long-established Ottomans and the later stages of the British Empire, but also of the formation of new Middle Eastern states which are the scene of so much instability and strife today.

This is one of those books which combines the forensic detail and analysis of an academic text with the anecdote and drama of a historical novel. Yet since the names of so many places and main players are unfamiliar to most readers and hard to keep in mind, it would have benefitted from more maps to show place-names and lines of attack for specific conflicts, with a time-line to summarise key events, and a “glossary” of the key people involved.

As a general reader, I reached saturation point with the logistics of the various battles, progressing from the icy winters of the Caucasus, through the exposed coastlines of the Dardanelles to the deserts of Mesopotamia and the Sinai peninsula, but no doubt the long-suffering soldiers, mainly colonials in the case of the British side, felt very much the same. Patterns emerge in all this, such as the courage, resilience and loyalty of troops in general, and the tendency for both the Turks and the British to suffer defeats through trying to fight on too many, or over-extended fronts, with inadequate troops and resources.

It is fascinating realise that the Turks only formed the alliance with Germany which dragged them into a protracted war to protect themselves from Russian designs on their territories in the Caucasus mountains and the shipping lanes through to the Black Sea. The Turkish advantages of familiarity with the terrain in say, Gallipoli or east of the Red Sea, together with the strong incentive to retain control of Istanbul should have been increased by the fact that most of the local inhabitants in the areas of conflict were Muslims, as were the Indian troops who found themselves shipped to Arabia. However, tribal Arab leaders were often tempted to revolt by what proved to be the ambiguous, even duplicitous promises made by the British, as in the “Husayn-McMahon Correspondence”, rather less well-known than the fateful, at the time secret Sykes-Picot agreement which (to simplify) planned to share former Ottoman lands of present-day Syria and Iraq between France and Britain. Representing the infamous Lord Kitchener, McMahon pledged “support for the independence of Arabia and its inhabitants”, but refused to discuss the crucial issue of boundaries, on the ground it would be premature during “the heat of war”.

The author makes frequent use of eye-witness accounts, for instance of an Armenian priest who survived against the odds to describe the horrors of a genocide due to prejudice brought to a head by the desire for revenge against suspected disloyalty in wartime, and ordered by high-ranking Turkish officials, some of whom were eventually sentenced to death for this crime.

As regards the lighter or more digestible anecdotes, we read how, after a chain of humiliating British defeats, the wily General Allenby ordered his men to construct life-size models of horses in wood and canvas, to mislead German pilots who were pioneering the use of aerial reconnaissance. When an Indian deserter “spilled the beans” about Allenby’s plan to breach Ottoman lines on the Mediterranean in a final crucial battle to gain Palestine, he was dismissed by the Germans (who were directing proceedings in the area) as a suspect source of deliberate misinformation. Anzac (Australian and New Zealand ) cavalrymen who had loyally endued hardships and defeats through the poor planning of their leaders and serious ongoing communication problems, defied the rules as regard leaving their precious horses for the local livestock markets or butchers, preferring to shoot the animals themselves before travelling home.

In the aftermath, the desire of the majority of Palestinian Arabs to be ruled as part of Faysal’s Arab kingdom, free from Zionist programmes of immigration, was ignored. Stripped of its former colonies, Turkey lost its Ottoman sultanate not at the insistence of its foreign victors, but through the uprising of the charismatic leader who became Ataturk (“father of the Turks”) who raised the revolt against the partition of Anatolia.

The Western Wind – If time or the wind could be reversed…….

This is my review of  “The Western Wind”  by Samantha Harvey.

It is Shrovetide 1491, the year presumably chosen to mark the end of the long medieval period of Catholic monopoly of belief mixed with intense superstition held by those at all levels of society.

John Reve, priest for the isolated and impoverished Somerset village of Oakham, is woken from his troubled sleep by the young neighbour Carter who has found the body of a man thought to have drowned three days earlier. The missing man is Newman, a charismatic, wealthy relative newcomer seen as the only hope for improving the fortunes of Oakham, largely by financing the construction of a bridge which will establish trading links with the wider world. His largescale purchase of local land, his novel religious ideas picked up from travels in Europe (“Newman wanted to find his own way to God”), perhaps illicit relationships with local women, suggest a number of potential enemies, although having lost his wife and child to “the sweating sickness” he may of course have taken his own life. Since he died “unshriven”, his tortured soul will cast a further blight on the village. His loss will also increase the likelihood of the village lands being acquired by the greedy monks of nearby Bruton, and it is unclear whether the dean from Wells, so keen to investigate the death, is really on the side of Reve and his flock.

This theme has the potential for an intriguing medieval mystery, which proves to be psychological drama and atmospheric portray of imagined life in a C15 village rather than a Cadfael type detective story. It is highly original in both style (poetic and using medieval or possibly “made up” words) and unusual structure, a very literary historical murder mystery, ambitious in its device of moving us back in time from Day 4 to Day 1 of a crisis. This plays on the idea of reversing time, and therefore altering the possible course of events.

To what extent does Reve remain an unreliable narrator, even when he discovers or reveals more evidence? The modern tone of the language (“Oakham is a low-hanging cherry waiting to be picked”) helps us to relate to the characters but sits oddly with the deep superstition over, say, “night air” contaminated by the evil spirits allowed by God to test us. The possible anachronisms which have bothered some reviewer did not trouble me unduly. Would John Reve have preached as he did in English, when I thought medieval services were rituals conducted in Latin? Would people really be putting sugar in the tea which would not be introduced to England for decades? Would Reve use an admittedly very makeshift confessional box, when this device is said to have been invented by Saint Charles Borromeo in the sixteenth century? The idea of revealing the background to a murder through the confessional is fundamental to the story, but perhaps historical inaccuracy does not matter too much, if the author needed to show a community in the very precise year of 1491, the year before Columbus discovered the New World and the concept of a round earth orbiting the sun began to crack apart the stranglehold of the Church on exploration of ideas and pursuit of fact-based knowledge.

I understand that the slow revelation of facts, the preoccupation with waterlogged mud, bodily dirt and the general misery of hard, poverty-stricken lives are necessary to the novel’s ambience, cues for what many will regard as a brilliant work of sustained creative writing. However, despite the thread of wry humour, I found the continual repetition and wordiness quite tedious, calling for more ruthless editing. I would have liked more development of Newman as a “Renaissance, Reformation” man, whose mind has been opened by in his European travels, in contrast to Reve, a perceptive man but limited by his narrow experience.

It was only in the last section “Day 1”, possibly because the end was in sight, that I felt fully engaged. I then felt the need to return and read Day 4 again, to check that the plot “stacked up” and to appreciate the impact of the true conclusion, which one could easily miss noting at the end of Day 4. This seems to be to be ambiguous in an interesting way, but I am not sure it is satisfactory for it to be so “buried” in the text and would like to hear the views of others on what they made of the “true” ending.

The President’s Hat – The power of suggestion, or something more?

This is a review of “The President’s Hat” by Antoine Laurain

When President Mitterrand leaves his distinctive hat in an upmarket Parisian restaurant, the mesmerised diner at the next table cannot resist the temptation to steal it. In a “La Ronde” type occurence chance events, the hat falls into the possession of a sequence of very different characters: a line-toeing manager who is bullied by his boss, a would-be writer who has drifted into being the mistress of a man eternally promising to leave his wife, a famous creator of perfumes who has lost his capacity to recognise scents, let alone create a best-selling new one, and so on. Despite having so little in common, thanks to the hat, each experiences the same sudden burst of confidence and creative impetus to act differently which radically alters the course of their lives.

The end, although essentially predictable, has enough ingenious twists to leave the reader satisfied. Despite a loss of momentum at times, as if it could just go on adding temporary owners of the hat until the author tires of the device, the plot is saved by the sheer pleasure of reading his polished, gently ironic prose. Even if one dislikes oysters, his description of eating one is so vivid that one can see and taste it. He also introduced me to some interesting buildings which can be looked up online, such as the courtyard of the Palais Royal in Paris with its “Colonnes de Buren”, the controversial installation of black-and white striped, columns resembling liquorice allsorts. Another example is the Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo with its stiking multi-arched spiral staircase, which sounds worth visiting on a trip to Venice.

Set in the 1980s, before the world of mobile phones, the internet and social media, the novel risks being dated by the reference to celebrities now long gone or forgotten, which may limit its appeal to younger readers. The cultural references sometimes feel a little contrived as if culled from a checklist of items researched to give the story an authentic setting. Antoine Laurain has said that he avoids reading modern novels, being depressed by their focus on violence and suffering. This novel, which flits like a butterfly over deep The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain and real problems, dripping nostalgia for a more innocent, less fraught era which never quite existed, can be enjoyed as an ingenious, entertaining piece of escapism from grim reality.

The final sentence may provide the key to the novel, or the idea that inspired it, namely François Mitterrand’s intriguing conclusion of his last address to the public: “Je crois aux forces de l’esprit et the ne vous quitterai pas”. C’est-à-dire: I believe in the strength of the spirit, and will never leave you”